Do you secretly pride yourself on always being ‘busy’? Or on being able to multi-task and manage several projects in your work and home life all at the same time?
The multi-tasking brain.
As women we are sometimes lauded for our ability to juggle multiple commitments. A lot of environments, including the corporate workplace, also seem to value multi-tasking skills – as if they mean we multi-taskers are more intelligent and more efficient than our less adept counterparts. Indeed, we often seem to revel in our own multi-tasking capabilities. Research has shown that doing several things at once creates a feedback loop whereby the brain releases the pleasure chemical dopamine as a reward for dropping focus and frequently finding fresh external stimuli. Think about how you feel when ‘double-screening’ or watching the TV while simultaneously scrolling through the internet or social media on your phone. It’s almost addictive, right?
The effect on productivity.
But whilst constantly switching tasks and focus might make us feel pleasurably more engaged, stimulated and busy, it’s actually having a negative impact on our productivity. Studies have shown that multi-tasking reduces productivity by as much as 40% and also affects the ability of our brains to learn new things, as well as increasing the amount of stress inducing hormone cortisol in our systems. We have a finite amount of energy available for thinking and completing tasks – switching rapidly from one to another depletes the energy in our brain cells – it literally makes us more tired and less able to function efficiently.
Focus on one thing.
That’s why I’m a great believer in the philosophy of “The one thing”. I came across this phrase in a book with the same title by entrepreneur Gary Keller a few years ago. Keller argues that rather than multi-tasking, you should keep in mind a grand vision of your ultimate, audacious goal in life, and then micro-focus. By this he means you should narrow your focus every day onto ‘the one thing’ that will have the biggest impact on you ultimately achieving your goal. When you have completed this small goal or task, you can move sequentially onto the next ‘one thing’. Success comes from the dedicated focus and high value of each sequential task. Imagine you are at a junction with multiple paths open to you. “Doing one thing” is the equivalent of choosing the most clearly defined, well-signposted and shortest route to your ultimate destination, rather than wandering off down various winding, un-signposted paths and hoping you end up in the right place.
The single-focus brain.
Keller’s got it right. In reality our brains are not capable of doing more than one thing at a time. We may think we are multi-tasking when we are tackling several jobs and thoughts at once – but scans show that in actual fact our brains constantly switch minute focus from one to the other – we actually can’t do things simultaneously. Our increasing reliance on technology makes this attention switching more prevalent and insidious. We all know, just from getting lost for hours down a rabbit hole of social media, that getting constantly distracted in this way is ultimately an inefficient and guilt-inducing experience. Multi-tasking really is just another word for allowing ourselves to be distracted. It leads to exhaustion, confusion, and results in a lack of dynamic positive action.
Change your behaviour.
The good news is, that even if you are an inveterate multi-tasker, it’s never too late to make a behavioural change. Before you attempt anything, in any area of your life – be it career, health, family, finances – practise asking yourself this question:“What is my ultimate goal, and what is the one best thing I can do right now to help me achieve it? For example – if your ultimate career goal is to get a promotion by the end of the year, what is the best thing you can do today to facilitate that? Set up a meeting with your boss, sign up for some training, join a networking group?
Perhaps you have a health goal to get fit and/or lose weight this year. What is the one thing you can do today to help you on your way? Investigate local personal trainers, research gym equipment, sign up for a course on nutrition?
As many of us are working from home right now and for the foreseeable future – perhaps your goal is to manage this successfully and efficiently. What’s the one thing that will start off the process of making that happen? Clearing out your home office? Signing up for a new content management system? Drawing up a schedule?
In each case, choose the one best option, focus on it, and complete it. Keller says doing this will lead you on to completing the next ‘bigger’ thing tomorrow in a progressive, geometric domino effect leading you towards achieving your ultimate goals.
Change your thinking.
It’s not just multi-tasking that causes us problems of course, many of us are guilty of multi-thinking or thought drama as I like to call it (you can read my blog on the subject here). Our powerful brains like to keep us safe by weighing up issues, solving problems and helping us make better decisions. They are extraordinarily good at doing this. However – we can often lack discipline in our thinking and end up in distorted, repetitive, manic, multi-thinking patterns which only serve to worry us and prevent us from taking action.
Take the same ‘one thing’ approach to tackling your thinking. If you are bothered and paralysed by numerous thoughts swirling about your head, pick one that will positively impact your life, and banish the others. For example, if the current Coronavirus crisis is causing you to do a lot of over-thinking and worrying about the future, take a positive thought, and focus on it. Instead of negatively ruminating on possible outcomes and things you can’t control, take ownership of your thoughts. Perhaps you will vow to emerge from the crisis with new resilience, or a new skill, a stronger relationship with your partner? Whatever it is, be positive, and be focused. Think ‘one thing’ at a time – and make the thought a productive one.
Adopting the one thing strategy is a great way of getting started when you are feeling indecisive or procrastinating. It gives you a definite direction when you are feeling rudderless. Question yourself whenever you are feeling ‘busy’. Are you really productively busy or just distracted? Do you need to focus? Tune into this week’s podcast to hear more on the subject. In my Having it all coaching programme, I can help clients find their ‘one thing’ focus. Email me at email@example.com for more details.