The Lie That’s Stealing Your Productivity (And Much More)

Take out a piece of paper and get something to write with. Yes, we’re going old school for this demonstration. Get something to time yourself with too.

You’re going to do a task twice. You’ll do it a bit differently each time and you’re going to time yourself each time.

Ready for the first task? When I say go, you’re going to write the sentence: “Multitasking is the biggest lie.” Then, underneath it, write the numbers 1 to 27 (1, 2, 3 … 25, 26, 27). Time how long this takes you and write down the time.

Ready? Go.

Ready for the second task? When I say go, you’re going to again write “Multitasking is the biggest lie,” and write the numbers 1 to 27. But now you’re going to write one letter, then one number, then one letter, then one number, and continue in that fashion. “M”, then “1”, then “u”, then “2”, etc. You’re going to write the same sentence and the same list of numbers, but you’re going to do it by alternating writing the letters and numbers. Time how long this takes you and write down the time.

Ready? Go.

How’d that feel? When I do this, I feel like there’s sludge in my mind. I can’t think properly at all. You? And how long did it take you to do the second task? It takes me more than twice as long to do the second task than it does to do the first task.

This is multitasking, better named switchtasking, because what we’re really doing when we work like this is continually switching from one task to another. This is how we operate when we’re trying to do two things (or five things) at once. We get all sludged up. If this is how you always operate, it can start to feel normal. But it’s far from optimal.

Switchtasking steals your productivity. And your joy, peace, and wellness. As this demonstration makes clear: We can’t do two things at once. And it’s really stressful to try.

Here’s your three-part antidote:

Photo 138--Thriving Worker

Work in focused blocks of uninterrupted time. Take periods of time and designate them for specific tasks. For example, you might decide to write an article from 8 to 10 and work on marketing from 10 to 12. When you’re writing, write. When you’re working on marketing, work on marketing. Think back to how amazing you were in the first part of the switchtasking demonstration. This is how you’ll be when you’re writing, and only writing. You’ll be clear and sharp. And relaxed.

You might be wondering: “But what if I get a call?”

Schedule your interruptions. Schedule when you reply to calls, texts, e-mails. For example, designate an hour at 8 and an hour at 1 for replying to people. Like a college professor who holds office hours, let the people in your life know when you’re available.

If this sounds like taking control of your workday, you’re right. It gets better too.

Take rest breaks. You’re not a machine. You need breaks. You can insert breaks into your workday in many ways. They work really well between tasks. For example, say you were planning to meet with a colleague from 8 to 9 and read the latest research in your field from 9 to 10, you could modify that so you have your meeting from 8 to 8:55 and read from 9 to 9:55 with five-minute rest breaks built into each hour. The best breaks involve completely getting away from your work. My favorite break is to go for a walk. Sometimes I meditate. Sometimes I stretch. Anything that feels good to you and gets you fully away from your work is a good break.

A break isn’t doing nothing. It’s nourishing you. Like you need air, water, and food, you need rest. When you come back from a break, you’ll do your best work and you’ll feel better.

Working this way allows you to do more with more. There will always be only one you, but you’re your best you when you’re well-nourished.

Most work cultures, even completely self-imposed work cultures, seem to be about getting a person to do more with less. It’s like starving a plant and expecting it to grow faster. It makes no sense at all. When you’re trying to do multiple tasks at once, allowing yourself to get interrupted all the time, and working non-stop without any breaks, you’ll be like a drunk ship captain. You might not be running into any icebergs anytime soon, but you’re surely not at your most effective.

This comes down to self-care. When you nurture yourself, you set yourself up to thrive in your work. You and the people you serve will get a lot from that. I invite you to give it a try and see how you feel.


There’s a place below to share your feelings on this article if you’d like. I’d love to hear from you.


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