Multi-tasking is a myth. No, really.
I know you probably know that, on a factual level. I used to claim to know it on a factual level too. But you and me both still try to multitask all the time. It’s almost like we’re irrationally addicted to it. Sometimes our work or personal lives seem to call for it. We feel as if we have so much going on, so much craziness and hecticness, that the only way to truly do any of our work with any degree of efficiency is to do it all at once at a frantic pace.
We feel like Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada, running down the street holding a box of priceless Hermes scarves, on her way to procure a priceless steak dinner for her boss while yelling on the phone about obtaining an unobtainable manuscript of the then-unreleased last Harry Potter book. But hey. That’s a movie. And, save for those of us who have particularly traumatic associative memories with evil bosses, it’s also a comedy. We don’t have to make things so dire.
Maybe that’s not your problem. Maybe you actually enjoy the feeling of multi-tasking and think you’re more productive when you do it. I know it feels great whenever you’re occasionally able to get in the zone on a project while having emails fly at you. It feels like you’re a superhuman of focus that can’t be distracted by anything. One of those cyborgs from some movie with multiple monitors in front of them, head on a swivel, perfectly anticipating and dealing with anything that comes their way.
But if I’m honest with myself? I’ve experienced that probably twice, in about 16 years of trying. The rest of the time? I click my little apps on my computer to have my email, my texts, my Facebook messenger, my Slack, all open and blinking, because it feels alive and exciting. But then my attention is just sliced into thinner and thinner pieces, and rendered useless. But I do it anyway. Because thinking we’re multitasking feels fun. Our dopamine-addicted systems love the feeling of checking for new messages, even if there’s no hope of them being there.
Maybe you always felt like you struggled to be productive because you just weren’t good at doing multiple things at once. You weren’t talented or dynamic or frantic enough to respond to email, talk on the phone, and walk your dog at once. But what if I told you it’s not your fault? The truth is, no one can do it. It’s actually been scientifically proven to be impossible. Our brains can literally, physically, only focus on one thing at a time. So, yes you can technically walk and chew gum simultaneously. But apparently, scientifically, your brain is strategically shifting focus and moving information around, flitting between the two jobs. And doing, however imperceptibly, a worse job at both.
I’ve mentioned a few times in the last month that I feel like I have a massive pile of important and pressing and dream-affirming tasks stacked in front of me. I’ve waxed poetic about the paralysis I feel when I stare at it. And, if you’re keeping score at home, you’ll notice — it’s still an issue a month later. But, twice a month, it comes time to write this article you’re reading right now. And because of my obligations to you lovely people reading, I know what I must do. Put aside all other obligations and bang out an article worth reading by lovely people. I’ve gotten to where I can do it reliably, on a dime, every time.
But it took me too long to have a follow-up thought: “why can I not just apply this to my big scary pile of tasks?”
I tried it. And I’m still new to it, so results are varying. But tasks are getting cleared off at a faster rate than before. Inertia is starting to give way. And it feels less scary. Here are a couple approaches I used to get started. Try ’em out yourself sometime.
Start with the hardest first
First, the classic approach: I call it hard mode.
Yes, as the adage goes, if you start with the hardest thing on your list, and push through and actually finish it off, you’ll have miraculously gotten through the scariest and most difficult part of your day. Then, one would imagine, everything after should flow like water.
There are some days where my workflow maps to that. And it really is a beautiful thing to put into action. Sometimes my “biggest thing” is something I just hate doing, like dusting or sweeping the house. For you, it may be working out. In fact, if it’s a physical thing, even better. Get it out of the way and get some blood pumping. Or just give yourself a little ego boost by completing something you’ve been actively procrastinating, or thought was gonna take days instead of hours.
Or, start with the easiest first
But sometimes, that hardest thing is really hard. Sometimes it’s your magnum opus, or a fifth draft of your master’s thesis dissertation. Or, your ten-act rock opera. Those things take a long time, and even starting the process of getting started on them can feel daunting and halting.
So that’s when we go to my plan B. Getting anything done instead of nothing.
Starting with the easiest thing has built-in advantages. You’re nearly a guarantee to be able to finish it. That presents a shortcut to a confidence-building boost in momentum. If you’re lucky, because you’re starting with things you’re good at, you’ll start to feel superhuman and invincible. And the more you believe that, the more you’ll be able to do, and faster.
That worked, so keep going
If you pull either of these off, don’t view it as a fluke. You’ve done one task, be it big or small. Now go on to step two.
Just because we’re limiting our scope does not mean we are curbing the energy of our momentum. One task leads to two leads to three. So much better than 10% percent of one task leading to 20% of another and then 5% of something else, and all of that leading to feeling, somehow, markedly more tiring.
There’s also a secret phantom third strategy that exists somewhere between starting with the hardest and starting with the easiest: it’s called not doing anything. I’ve mentioned productivity paralysis in articles before. It remains one of our greatest foes.
But if this is the obstacle you’re facing, the solution may even be more simple: forget starting at the end, or at the beginning. Just start. In the middle if you have to. With a tiny action moves your progress bar from 0% to 0.01%, if you have to.
Then, try to repeat.
And then repeat again.
Good luck out there. Remember: one thing at a time, all the way to the top. Seriously.