Five ideas to break the unproductive habit of multitasking

I have a running disagreement with a lovely woman who believes to her core she is extremely capable of accomplishing multiple to-do’s at once. When I suggest slowing down and focusing on one chore at a time, this accomplished dynamo of a retiree laughs and replies there is no reason to do so when she can get so much more done when she multitasks.

Recently, after opening a letter from her doctor that recommended lots of walking for better health, “Mary” decided she needed to start right away.

Even though it was late, and she was tired.

Onto her trusty treadmill she climbed, gradually increasing the speed and then raising the incline for good measure.

Practically running along and feeling quite gazelle-like, this obedient patient was enjoying the rush of the exercise but not the accompanying rise in body temperature.

She soon needed to take off her heavy, hooded sweatshirt so as not to suffer heatstroke, and being safety conscious, she lowered the incline.

However, she did not want to lose any of her momentum.

So she made the decision to multitask. After all, she said, “All you have to do is keep walking and strip off the extra layer.”

With one hand she reached up into her  bright orange garment to release her arm, and then grabbed at the hem to pull the top up over her head and off her body in one sweeping motion.

Mary wryly commented that when your sweatshirt is wrapped around your head, it apparently affects your walking rhythm.

You actually forget to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

The next thing she knew she was sailing backwards like a headless horsewoman who’d been thrown from her mare, against the bureau drawers built into the wall behind her.

Fortunately, the dents made in the small of her back by the round wood knobs could be claimed as large beauty marks if they didn’t fade.

Realizing that all of the energy from her launch had not yet been released, and knowing that the glass patio doors were directly to her right, she twisted her body to the left.

Continuing her impromptu airborne gymnastic routine, Mary bounced off the wall and  stopped hard as she hit the bed face down.

So there she was, sprawled across the quilt, still trapped inside her sweatshirt and, fortunately, none the worse for the wear. She said she was laughing so hard she almost suffocated before she got her head back out to check that all of her body parts were still attached and unbroken.

 ~~~~~~

Are you a mom who believes multitasking is the only true and available path to getting things done?

I used to believe that, too.

I am learning, though, the more I focus on just one task at a time, the more I accomplish and the better quality the finished product, and the sooner I can move onto the next item on my list.

And studies back me up. Even neuro-scientists say our brains can’t focus on more than one thing at a time.

However, convincing ourselves of that truth can be a difficult thing indeed, as we prefer our rose-colored lack of perspective to reality.

Can you think of times you have tried to do several things at once and done one or more badly?

Have you burned a meal, forgotten to pick up an item at the grocery store, or missed a stop on your errand run because you were simultaneously handling other physical or mental tasks?

Uh huh. I’m guilty. How about you?

Dave Crenshaw, author of The Myth of Multitasking: How “Doing It All” Gets Nothing Done, notes the three major downsides of this behavior:

  • The tasks take longer because you are switching back and forth and having to reorient yourself
  • You make more mistakes because you have thrown more information into the mix
  • Your stress level increases for the same reasons. Crenshaw even shares a short test to illustrate the effects of multitasking.

He also lists a fourth serious side effect to this bad habit:

  • The damage we do to relationships because we are not focused on the other person. Between the texting, emailing, surfing, and whatever else we do while talking with a loved one, they are left feeling unimportant.

Yes, unimportant.

Ouch.

So here are five simple ideas to take on your way to more focused and productive living, and improved relationships as well.

 

Pick one thing, and do just that task.

I know this sounds extremely simplistic, but it is a pivot point towards a changed life. If you are vacuuming a room, for instance, just vacuum. If you come across items that belong elsewhere, throw them into a basket or pile them on the furniture to handle when you are done.

Do not wander away to start the chain reaction of putting away the boots in a closet you start to neaten up, moving the winter coats to the attic for storage, to searching for the beach tote because it’s unseasonably warm, to going to the computer to look up vacation ideas, to playing a word game online with friends, only to find that a couple of hours have passed, and the vacuuming still awaits.

This will definitely take some time and practice. Be on the alert, and nip this behavior in the bud each time it appears.

 

When you are having dinner with family, turn off the electronics.

If necessary, move the computers and phones to a different room to make space to enjoy the food and conversation. Again, you need to give this time to take root. Be prepared to chat. Ask everyone for the low and high point of their day, the most interesting thing they learned, or one thing they are grateful for.

There are also great conversation starters on Amazon, such as The Complete Book of Questions: 1001 Conversation Starters for Any Occasion, Dinner Talk: 365 engaging conversation starters to help you and your family connect, and TableTopics Family, a Trivial Pursuit type box of assorted fun and thought-provoking questions.

 

Choose certain periods of the day to check email and social networking sites, and put a time limit on your visits.

Doing so will keep you more focused and intentional as you work your way through your inbox and surf the internet. This will also give you more minutes—or hours—to handle other tasks. Set a timer, or ask a family member to be your accountability partner as you build this new habit.

 

Subscribe to the Big Rock Theory.

In First Things First, Stephen Covey shares a parable of Big Rocks. His point is that if you choose your most important two or three tasks and make time to focus on those first, you will accomplish more and still have the time for smaller chores. When you choose instead to fill the day with lots of small, less consequential items, you just won’t have time for those bigger tasks you want to get done.

 

Add prayer to your day.

Whatever the time of day, get in the habit of sitting quietly and taking time for a conversation with God. If you find your mind wandering, gently bring it back to the thought at hand. This not only gives you a peaceful foundation on which to build your days, it deepens your relationship with God and also provides great practice for focusing.

 

Be very patient with yourself. You have spent years unintentionally building and strengthening these habits. You will find that the more you do them, the more accustomed you become to focusing and finishing one task at a time, and the more productive you will become.

And for goodness sake, don’t multitask on the treadmill.

 

Challenge: What is just one thing you can tackle all by itself today? Please share, ask for suggestions and support one another in the comments. Remember to check that little box under the comment area so if someone responds to you, you will be notified of the reply.

 

Sharing at No Ordinary Blog Hop, The Better Mom Mondays Linkup, Finding Heaven Soli Deo Gloria Party, Time-Warp Wife Titus 2 Tuesdays, Women Living Well, Things I Can’t Say

 

Image credit-Lars Hammar via Flickr

 

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Comments

  1. Love this! As a life coach, I see many women overwhelmed by their multitasking. You’ve captured a solution so well! Thanks!

    Thanks for swing by http://www.moretobe.com today, too!

    • Glad you enjoyed the parable and the lesson. I count myself among those who do still get overwhelmed, try to multitask, fall down, rinse. repeat. . .

  2. Hi Kim,

    Wonderful nuggets and beautifully written. Thank you for sharing.

    In my experience, often times, people keep themselves busy and distracted so they don’t have to think about things that may cause them discomfort, restlessness, and even pain.

    With the best of intentions, people will consciously and unconsciously do whatever they can to stay as far away from pain as possible. In some cases, people will even sacrifice pleasure just to keep pain at-bay.

    • I think you’ve really nailed it, Joel. I know I will realize I am doing busywork or just distracting myself in general to avoid a post that isn’t coming together the way I want.

      Tony Robbins wrote about people being goal setters who move away from pain or towards pleasure. So, yes, I believe—and have experienced—hanging onto a painful situation as opposed to moving towards the intangible goal of something that might be more pleasurable.

      A difficult place and mindset, indeed.

  3. Kim,
    What a great post! And it’s just what I needed to hear as I grab a bite to eat/unpack groceries/figure out if I can write at the same time/and answer the phone. The story of your friend is hysterical, and I really appreciated your point that as she was trying to multitask, she literally forgot to put one foot in front of the other! This is a great reminder to slow down, and focus on the things that last, and truly matter.
    Blessings,
    Ann

    • Oh, Ann, thank you for the laugh out loud as you describe what you are doing! It sounds so much like me! I am so glad you enjoyed this parable. Every day I have to force myself all too often to stop doing more than one thing at a time.
      One pattern I still have not broken: I will often go to use the microwave at lunch or dinner only to discover my coffee mug from breakfast. Oops.
      Thanks for coming by and bringing more laughter into my day!

  4. I laughed out loud at this story, Kim. I pictured it all the way to the point of “suffocation!” :) And the tips are great. It sounds as if you’ve done your research here, so I believe you! Now, if I will just do as you say! One. thing. at. a. time. Yikes, that’s hard!

    • I am so glad this made you laugh out loud, Beth! The tips come from life experience of knowing what I am supposed to do. . .
      Working on doing it every day. :-)

  5. You know the craziest part? I even multi task while I pray everyday! Each morning I get in the car and on my drive to drop the kids off i pray. Not sure if its unproductive, but I had to fit it in somewhere. Thanks for the tips!

    • Wow, Keya-so many of us have difficulty with focus! I am guilty of praying in the car when I don’t intentionally make time for it in the morning. Fortunately, that is something I have done pretty well at changing. While each of these comments makes me laugh, I sigh at the distance we still have to travel. . . Thanks for sharing!

  6. I’ve been learning to tell myself and my kids that I can only do one thing well at a time. However, there’s multitasking and there’s multitasking. While I wouldn’t try to make a bunch of food at once, I find I can handle starting a batch of chicken stock and then working on the main meal for the day. So it’s more sequential multitasking. :) I write down times on my planner or use a timer to remind me to check on stuff.

    • Author Crenshaw did talk about background tasking, where we do two things simultaneously, where one requires no real effort or thought: starting laundry while writing; listening to music while working out, etc. I do agree with you on that. I use a timer as well-that helps me keep track of the “no thought needed” tasks. :-)

      I have tried to make several meals at once, and don’t do that anymore. I find it too stressful keeping track of everything.

      Thanks for coming by and sharing your thoughts, Barb!

  7. I like the term “background tasking!” And again, we would have to be careful not to have too many background tasks going on while we’re working.

  8. I enjoyed reading this post. It was filled with a fun story along with some great wisdom. I used to try and multitask but I can’t anymore. I was what you might call a side-tracked home executive. I would have a large list of to-do’s. I would start doing # 1 and then find something else to start; so most of my projects didn’t get completed. You gave some sound advise and the most important was # 1.
    Blessings for a great read!

    • Glad you found your way out of the multitasking thicket LeAnn! Thanks for your kind words and I am glad you found value here today.

  9. Great post! I needed this right now….when do we “learn” that multi-tasking is the best way? I am hoping to make some changes based on your info! One task at a time!!

    • Lisa-Great question! When and how do we learn? Is it cultural? Peer pressure? I am tickled you are hoping to make changes. I am with you—one task at a time is my battle cry, too!

  10. love, love, love this, kim! i am the one that begins a task, and am soon distracted by all the other tasks that present themselves in the midst of accomplishing the original task. sigh. or, i won’t even begin a task because there are so many little tasks within sight that need doing and i am overwhelmed before even beginning!
    anyway, homeschooling is our priority each and every day, and that has to be the main, big, huge thing we get accomplished. other than that, i think maybe i should just set aside one other task that really needs to get done (other than a few mindless ones) and call it a well-done day :-) and most days that’s what we do, truth be told. but i can get sidetracked if i’m not careful.
    thanks for all the good tips and illustrations. and laughs, as well :-)
    blessings to you this day!
    steph

    • I suppose the good news is, Steph, given the responses is that we are not alone in this distraction.
      *Sigh*
      Home schooling is a big rock, and I imagine it takes a large chunk of your day. You are building character, good citizens, critical thinkers and problem solvers, etc., after all. :-)
      I am so glad you found laughter and refreshment here this morning. Thanks for taking the time to stop by before your day rolls into high gear!

  11. I am super guilty of being a multi-tasker… Although I certainly do not have the courage to attempt anything on the treadmill. (I would definitely break my face ha ha!) Thanks for the reminder to slow down and do one thing at a time :-) Blessings!

    • Sharita, You made me laugh out loud at the thought of breaking my face. That is why I tend to stay away from treadmills.
      That is indeed a theme today-one thing at a time!
      Thanks for coming by.

  12. Oh, I needed this today.

    I’m a chronic multi-tasker and often find that it ends in my being overwhelmed. Too many spinning plates, ya know? Your post really challenged me to do one thing at a time and do it well. To just be small and trust God with the big stuff.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. This was for ME.

    • I am so grateful you found your way here today, Kelli. I keep hearing from so many women that they need to focus on just one thing at a time, and that includes me, too! Thank you for coming by. Your words mean a lot to me.

  13. Hey, I know these results and believe them to a point.

    But one thing works better while multitasking: relationships. When I walk, it’s a good time to hang out with one of my kids, when I cook, that can also be together time. If I just sit there and focus on the kids, they get self-conscious. This way we share a walk or a project, conversation flows, and we can be together in a low key way.

    I thinks it’s important to have moderation in everything, even in focussing on one task at a time.

    • Absolutely, Annie Kate! I love walking and chatting with my girls, and cooking as well. There is something very disarming about the activity that keeps the hands busy so the hearts can share.

      My only issue with chatting, especially with my daughters, is getting too involved in the conversation and losing track of my turns and exits when I am driving. Just last week I wrote about a wonderful afternoon during which I got “lost” twice, within 10 minutes of where my husband’s current work assignment is. Fortunately, we all have a sense of humor about such things.

      Thanks for sharing your perspective, Annie Kate. Different points of view give us lots to think about!

  14. Multitasking makes me illiterate. Just read an email I sent yesterday while cooking dinner. Twice in that email I left the r out of the word “your.” You don’t sound very smart when you message a friend and ask, “How did you show go Sunday.”

    • Oh, I am guilty of that as well, Connie. What is it that is so pressing that we can’t spend a few minutes just on the email? Yikes. Thanks for coming by and making me laugh. :-)

  15. I used to envy people tht multi-tasked. Then I found out they really weren’t multi-tasking but instead rapidly switch-tasking. I tried it and it felt awful. Getting interrupted when I’m in the middle of something is really unnerving to me. Besides, I think you nailed the problem with multi-tassking with this line: “You actually forget to keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

    Yep, that about describes how I feel when I try it!

    Tim

    • Tim, I think folks have different levels of tolerance for switch-tasking, but I think more gets done when focusing on an item, finishing, and then moving on to the next. You noted the multi-tasking really unnerved you. You recognized it didn’t work, so you were able to stop being jealous—always a huge benefit!—and do something different. Those moments when we have insight and take action on them are priceless!
      Baby steps, baby steps!
      Thanks for dropping by!

  16. Love the Big Rock principle :)

    Here’s the orignal Stephen Covey video: http://www.liveitforward.com/put-the-big-rocks-in-first/

  17. Oh, ouch! I am a huge multitasker. I know I need to work on some of this, but it’s so hard to change habits. I also find that switching back and forth works well for my easily distracted brain.

    • Yet more habits and behaviors I have in common with all you lovely ladies. :-)

      There are two great books on making small changes: The Compound Effect, by Darren Hardy, and Switch, by Dan and Chip Heath. Very interesting reads with great ideas to begin with small changes in your life and work. Thanks for coming by today!

  18. Your example hits home with me. B/c really- it would just take a few seconds to stop and take the sweatshirt off and avoid getting hurt. But sometimes, we don’t see that and just keep trying to go on. I need to remember that it’s best to slow down sometimes.

  19. I really needed to read this post. I have been trying to multi-task for the past few weeks. I feel like I’ve accomplished nothing. I’m going to enjoy not having a computer for a few weeks. Although, I’m feeling a bit stressed about my responsibilities, it’s about time I took a break.

    Thank you for your enthusiasm and wisdom, Kim!

    • Lynda, I know you have so much going in your life right now, and I am glad you found some help here. We moms seem to be so deeply wired to just keep adding more plates to those already spinning in the air. I’m glad you will be taking a break, and I pray you have the time to refresh yourself at the proverbial well!
      I had read another post on the benefits of single-tasking I found helpful, and perhaps it will provide further encouragement for you. Here it is: http://blogs.hbr.org/bregman/2010/05/how-and-why-to-stop-multitaski.html

  20. Hi Kim,
    I want to say that I agree with the idea of multi-tasking efficiency being a myth in all but one case — and its a case that most people don’t think of: delegation. When we are delegating, we are actually expanding our influence and what we can get accomplished more than what we could have done on our own.

    And in case someone who is reading this thinks these two ideas are different, I use my job in a manufacturing/publishing facility as an example: I delegate tasks to equipment that then frees me up to do other things. I multitask by starting many different projects that need to be done on the equipment, then check up on the progress and do a few minutes of finishing ‘clean-up’ work when the task is finished.

    It is true that our brains can only focus on one thing at a time, but with delegation-style multitasking, we can get more done. Multitasking by doing everything personally will flop every time.

    ~Cam
    P.S. Great illustration about trying to multitask on the treadmill. That’s bound to leave an impression on multiple levels. :)

    • Thanks for coming by, Cam, and offering up more great information! I agree. To delegate, especially to equipment, leaves that as a task that is running in the background, leaving you free to move forward and accomplish more.
      Thanks too for the laugh: “leaving an impression on multiple levels.” :-)

      • You’re welcome. Always happy to bring smiles. (Your image for this post was the first thing that made me smile when I arrived!)

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