Focus on one thing – it’s much better for you

I sit in an open plan office and look around. There are many people sat with headphones on participating in one or other of the constant stream of teleconferences. They’re all sat in front of a screen browsing around, replying to emails, participating in instant message chats. They’re all multitasking. They’re all telling themselves that the call doesn’t require their full attention so they can use some of their attention on some other worthwhile distraction. I’ve done exactly that for many years but the reality is that it’s exhausting, unproductive and ultimately destructive. The call suffers, the worthwhile distraction suffers, we suffer.

RydalI’ve talked about multi-tasking before:

Tony Schwartz recently wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review titled The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time.

Tell the truth: Do you answer email during conference calls (and sometimes even during calls with one other person)? Do you bring your laptop to meetings and then pretend you’re taking notes while you surf the net? Do you eat lunch at your desk? Do you make calls while you’re driving, and even send the occasional text, even though you know you shouldn’t?

The biggest cost — assuming you don’t crash — is to your productivity. In part, that’s a simple consequence of splitting your attention, so that you’re partially engaged in multiple activities but rarely fully engaged in any one. In part, it’s because when you switch away from a primary task to do something else, you’re increasing the time it takes to finish that task by an average of 25 per cent.

But most insidiously, it’s because if you’re always doing something, you’re relentlessly burning down your available reservoir of energy over the course of every day, so you have less available with every passing hour.

Tony also links to this video from Stanford University which demonstrates what we do to ourselves when we do multitask:

Media Multitaskers Pay Mental Price

(A short break in writing because I was interrupted by an Instant Message from a colleague, which took me through to the start of a call into which I tried to be focussed, for once, without worthwhile distractions. It would be ironic to write a blog post on the dangers of multitasking while multitasking.)

I see myself multitasking all of the time, I’ve certainly not got this one cracked, but one thing I am certain of, I need to spend much more time on one task and far less time flitting between activities. It’s very easy to fill your life with worthless frittering, but that’s draining, unfulfilling and destructive. There are all sorts of pressures to dance from one thing to the next, but the primary challenge is with my own resolve. I suspect I’m like many people, I know that this way of working isn’t good for me, I could do something to resolve it, but choosing to leave things as they are feels like an easier route. In 12 step groups they call this denial and you have to overcome that before you can get too much further.

It’s time to move out of denial, anyone else coming with me?

4 thoughts on “Focus on one thing – it’s much better for you”

  1. I had just read the same article Graham. It is a bit of an eye-opener but i doubt that it would win you any friends, when other people are trying to interrupt, the one task that you are focusing on.

    I do try to insist that Sametime is not on at the same time as a conf call, which is a start i suppose. Excellent blog, i hope that our peers read it too!

  2. Seriously considering coming with you Graham. I’m finding that there is too much information to be able to absorb, too many distractions to be able to focus, so I think I’m going have to actively blog them out and be more selective.

    The problem is that I get involved in so many things, in and out of work that interest me it’s hard to cut things out for fear of missing something but something has to give.

    Some great points though. Let me know how you get on!

  3. I’m with you, Graham. I started making a concerted effort to single-task a few months ago. About 90% of the time, I focus on the conference call, document, Twitter stream, whatever else may be front and foremost and block out the rest. It helped to turn off all notifications (email, social media, voicemails, etc.) so that I’m not tempted to respond to the “ping” whilst doing something else.

    Am I missing things? Probably. But I’m not missing anything that is critical in nature. If it’s truly important, it will eventually find me. Just like this blog post found me during my scheduled time with Google+ and Twitter.

  4. @Sherri, I think you are right, the “ping” is the devil of distraction. I need to set up a “focus” profile where all are turned off.

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