Do you attempt to perform multiple tasks at the same time? Do you find yourself getting overwhelmed and confused? Most of us do, at some point, but there are things that you can do to help yourself with keeping your focus.
Myths of Multitasking
Picture this: You are working on two complex spreadsheets. In the background, you have a half-written email to a client that you have to finish. You have an inbound email open from your boss, to which you need to respond. As you flip between the two spreadsheets, you see the two opened emails, which distracts you from the task at hand. You also notice that three new emails have come in, and you wonder if they are important. Then your Skype window pops up with a query from a colleague. Just when you think you can’t get any more overwhelmed, someone taps on the wall of your cubicle. No wonder you never seem to be able to get your Excel work done!
In fact, multitasking carries a significant cost.1 Task switching involves two distinct steps. First, when we decide to shift from one task to another. Second, the effort to change our mindset for the new task. If we are constantly shifting from one task to another, we add the effort and time of these two steps to our workday. We all need to learn to focus on one thing at a time.
Being made aware of other demands on our time is distracting. For each one, we have to take the time and effort to determine if this new task takes priority over the current task. This can be caused by having other tasks open in applications, even in the background, or by notifications that make us aware of new input. “Just receiving a notification on your cell phone can cause enough of a distraction to impair your ability to focus on a given task…”2
Many people believe that they must be available at all times, whether that is through email, text, phone, or social media. In most cases, this is simply not true. Review your last 10 or 20 inbound communications. How many of them did you actually have to respond to immediately? Unless you are an emergency worker, chances are the answer is zero.
You need to give yourself permission to turn off those notifications. Every audio or visual notification, whether it is on your computer or your mobile devices, trigger a distracting reaction. Schedule time to check your incoming messages. This can be once a day, once an hour, or once every fifteen minutes, depending on the criticality of your role.
If there are one or two sources that are considered critical, then find a way to allow only those to generate notifications. Or give them a distinctive tone, so that you can learn to tune out all the others. And yes, this is difficult to achieve, but it can be done.
Make Tech Work for you
Technology provides us with many tools to help us manage our lives. We don’t have to be a slave to technology. Make the tech work for you. Here are just a few suggestions. The actual implementation will depend on what applications you use, but you should be able to find equivalent solutions within your own applications.
Keeping Your Focus: Email
If you use Microsoft Outlook for email, learn about the Focused Inbox. This feature learns your patterns of dealing with email and will present only ‘important’ emails in your inbox. The other ‘lesser’ communications will still be there in the background when you are ready to review and deal with them.
On your computer, simply close your email client when you are working on something other than email. If the app is not open, then it cannot notify you of new emails. Alternately, consider turning off all the notifications (both visual and audio) for your email client. Another option is to change your email settings so that they only send and receive every hour.
Keeping Your Focus: Status
Set your status to Unavailable or Do Not Disturb. This includes Skype, other chat applications, and social media. Any app that shows your online status to other people should offer an option to appear offline or to explicitly request that you don’t want interruptions.
Consider setting your phone to go directly to voice mail so that it doesn’t even ring, or if you are in an office setting, maybe you could forward your number to a delegate. It may be a good learning opportunity for someone on your team.
But what about walk-ups? Unless you work from home, we all work with other people and will have to interact with them at times. However, you don’t have to be at their beck and call all day. If you have an office, close the door. If you are in a cubicle environment consider a sign on the wall, or the back of your chair, that explicitly (and tactfully) requests that you not be disturbed at this time. Some fun ideas are found here3, but remember to be respectful of your office workplace culture; sometimes humor and sarcasm are not appreciated.
There are status lights available, that you can manually set to green or red, depending on whether you are available for a chat or not. Some of these will even tie into your phone systems so that they will automatically turn red when you are on a call. You may want to check with your office to see if that is something that could be provided to cubicle workers. I have implemented these tools for receptionists who wear headphones so that people approaching their desks can clearly see when they are on a call.
Keeping Your Focus: Applications
Many office tasks do require that you access multiple applications at once. That is fine, but keep the open applications to a minimum. Only open what you need to perform the required task. When you move on to another task, close out the other applications with which you had been working. These days applications do not normally take much time to open. You are better off reducing your workspace clutter, as each time one of those windows flashes into view, you will be distracted.
One subsequent issue, that can occur once you do manage to get really focused on one task, is that you may become so focused that you lose track of time. So again, make technology work for you, by setting up timers or alarms, so that you don’t go over your allotted time for a task and you don’t miss scheduled meetings.
Research the capabilities of your applications. If you are a Microsoft user, check out KWTs Outlook courses, to learn more about what the technology can do for you.
1 American Psychological Association. “ Multitasking: Switching costs.” 20 March, 2006. <https://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask>.
2 Florida State University. “Cell phone notifications may be driving you to distraction.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 9 July 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/07/150709133044.htm>.
3 Luxafor. “12 Clever and Funny “Do Not Disturb” Door Sign Ideas For Office That Actually Work.” 15 August, 2019. < https://luxafor.com/12-clever-and-funny-do-not-disturb-door-sign-ideas-for-office-that-actually-work/>.