Time to Cowboy Up and Turn off That Phone. Lessons in Uni-tasking.

It sucks you in. It captures your attention. Those sly notifications. It’s like a hit of some illicit drug. You just have to pick up that phone and see if someone is reaching out to you with that million dollar deal. That windfall. An old flame trying to rekindle. The rich uncle who left you his Tesla. The reality is that it is nothing but deception. Most of those emails and other sundry notifications are just temptation into nothing but junk. Spam. Some old college friend you half remember liked the photo of a sunrise. And you stopped what you were doing and came to a screeching halt? Do you want to know what that is costing you? The illusion of multitasking is wearing you out.

The answer lies in having the courage (yes courage) to shut that damn phone off. Yes. I said off. To do your best work you need to uni-task. One thing at a time. But I hear you balking. “I can’t give up my phone. There might be an emergency.” Truth is there is no emergency. The phone is just making you believe it is so.

disconnectHere is are the reasons you need to cowboy up and turn off that phone:

1. The cost of context switching is huge.

Check out Gerry Weinberg’s chart of productivity loss. Basically if you focus on one project like writing this blog post; there is 100% productivity and no time lost switching contexts. But if you try to write a blog post while emailing your boss and writing a new marketing project; in other words, working on 3 projects at once you will have 20% productivity and 40% lost to context switching. That’s a huge loss! You’ve been there. You are right in the middle of the flow of creativity and the phone rings. It’s nothing important but it will take you time to get back to where you were. Time lost in trying to get back THERE is huge. And often that ‘next thought’ is lost forever.

2. Multitasking gets you there later.

Roger Brown wrote this article for InfoQ. Brown writes, “We know that simple interruptions like a phone call can cost as much as 15 minutes of recovery time. The more complex the task, the more time it takes to make the shift.” It’s like constantly hitting the pause button. Actually it’s more like hitting the reverse button. One step forward multitasking is taking you two giant steps back. You’ll never win “Mother May I” with that sort of tactic.

3. It’s harmful for you brain.

Brown writes, “There is evidence that multitasking actually degrades short term memory, not just for the topics being multitasked but possibly by impacting areas of the brain.” Your prefrontal cortex requires a lot of energy. It’s where you do your best work. If you are constantly stressing it out by dragging your thoughts into fight or flight (which is what distractions are doing to you) you will not be able to do your best work. Mistakes will happen. And the constant stress is bad for your brain.

4. You are just scattered.

As Jim Benson wrote for Personal Kanban, “The study found that self-identified multi-taskers ended up people who were merely justifying a scattered lifestyle. Perhaps they felt productive because during a day they touched so many different tasks – but when actually tested against people who focused on one thing at a time, the multi-taskers lost and lost big.” I think of Thanksgiving Day. I am multitasking trying to get a meal together that I make once a year. I am not used to making a turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, salad, veggies and pumpkin pies all in one fell swoop. It’s a one off event. And if you looked at my kitchen, it would most likely be described as a disaster (i.e. very scattered). And that’s not how my kitchen usually looks.

5. It’s really expensive.

As Steve Lohr wrote for the New York Times, “The productivity lost by overtaxed multitaskers cannot be measured precisely, but it is probably a lot. Jonathan B. Spira, chief analyst at Basex, a business-research firm, estimates the cost of interruptions to the American economy at nearly $650 billion a year.” The billion with a B. Companies are spending money on all the unproductive, recovery time to get back on task.

So what do you do? Create time blocks to do your best work and turn off your phone. Complete one project. Complete one phase or one chunk. Then move on. Turn on music without lyrics (i.e. classical). Get present and focus. Think of all the good you will be doing for yourself and others. And think of the free time you’ll have after to just enjoy life.

Originally published on Change Your Thoughts on September 11, 2015.

Multitasking. The Big Lie.

In addition to being a recovering interrupter, I am also a recovering multitasker.  There was a time, about 15 years ago, when I was a commuter in Northern California, in which I would apply makeup, drink a Venti Mocha, talk on my cell phone AND drive my car between Windsor and Petaluma.   Not too good.  I was under the delusion that I was getting so much accomplished – that I was Super Woman.

As technology exploded in the 90s, there was the imperative to keep 10 balls in the air at one time, and it hasn’t stopped. Dr. David Rock has busted the multitasking myth with his book “Your Brain at Work.” In the book he compares your frontal cortex which is the size of a postage stamp and where you make all your decisions, to a stage in a theater.  And this stage is not the size of Madison Square Garden or even Carnegie Hall.  It’s more like a puppet theater with room for about three hand puppets max.  In Dr. Rock’s analogy, your frontal cortex is being bombarded with actors trying to get on stage.  And the more actors you have on stage, the more your decision-making diminishes.  My husband takes this analogy literally.  I ask, “why were you up at 4 AM?”.  He replies, “all the actors rushed the stage”. For each additional task (actor) on stage, the more your performance drops.

Christine Rosen, who wrote the article “The Myth of Multitasking,” agrees with Dr. Rock and says that the result of multitasking is a 10-point drop in IQ or twice the drop as for marijuana users. And we all know that multitasking while driving (you know, like applying make up and talking on your cell phone) is worse than drunk driving.  Tsk, Tsk.

So here are a few steps to bring us back on the road to monotasking:

1. Clear. As in clear all the clutter. I have been letting my magazine subscriptions lapse.  I don’t get the local newspaper anymore.  Set the timer and take 10 minutes to clean out your kitchen junk drawer, your closet or your car.  De-cluttered means less distractions.

2. List.  Close your office door and make a list.  Do a brain dump of everything you want or might want to get done takes a lot of actors out the mix and off your “stage.” If I’m in class and just remembered I need shampoo from the store, that bottle of shampoo is going to sit on my stage (maybe) and trip up my other actors.  Do a brain dump to get it off the stage.  Or better yet, get Wunderlist (a wonderful free app for making and organizing task lists) and put it on your grocery list.

3. Focus. This is the hard part.  Pay attention to the task at hand.  If you are on a conference call and start going through your email; you are not listening.  You are reading email.  If reading email is more important, then hang up the phone.  If the conference call is more important, then shut down the email.  You are going to have to start making choices.  So choose.

4. No.  You’re going to have to do it.  Turn off the TV.  Send it to voice mail.  Don’t go to the conference.  Get off the committee.  I can see you rolling your eyes but it’s true.  Just because you can check email 24/7 doesn’t mean you have to.  The world will still be there tomorrow.  Just say NO.

5. Imperfection.  Do it imperfectly at first.  It’s OK.  It’s fine if you back slide a little.  Small messy steps are more important than no steps.  There is going to be that phone call you were waiting for as you’re driving north on 101.  Maybe you can pull over and take it.  Maybe you can explain and call them back later.  Don’t beat yourself up.

6. Meditation. Taking just a few minutes a day to meditate can make a huge difference in your ability to focus.  Lydia Dishman writes in a article for Fast Company, “It takes only five minutes a day and plays to a common theme in our information-deluged culture. Start by picturing a TV screen with a news ticker running along the bottom”.  Find some ways to fit meditation into your schedule and your ability to focus or laser in on one task will improve.

The fact that you’re aware and trying will help you make more effective and smarter decisions.  Sometimes a shampoo bottle will come rolling onto the stage.  It’s OK.

Are you putting your best cast on the stage or is it full of shampoo bottles?