Last week I was standing at the Chicago airport and noticed a young woman in front of me in the security line. She looked as though she was traveling on business, perhaps returning home after a meeting. She was eating her lunch sandwich while at the same time typing something on her iPad. And as the line inched forward she kept her place, pushing her bag forward with her feet.
Suddenly her cell phone rang. She answered the phone and cradled it between her shoulder and neck, still holding her sandwich in one hand and doing one-finger typing on her iPad with the other hand and propelling her bag forward with her legs. By now she had reached the desk where the officer was checking identification and boarding pass. She placed her iPad on the counter and retrieved her driver’s license from her handbag, all the while still cradling the phone between her shoulder and neck and continuing the conversation. She was now doing five things simultaneously. And I thought, How did we reach here as a civilization? How did we survive as a species?
The one thing I have learned to do over the years, using trial and error and some hard knocks, is to practice doing one thing at a time. It sounds simple—almost pedestrian. It’s on the same level as someone saying that if you eat vegetables and exercise regularly, you will feel better. But underneath this very simplistic-sounding wisdom there is a profound secret that people from heart surgeons to professional athletes to world-class musicians have discovered, adopted, and mastered.
In today’s hyperconnected, fast-charging lifestyles, there is a tendency to do too much at the same time and get very distracted in the process—a tendency that blogger Linda Stone has called continuous partial attention. “To be busy and connected is to feel alive,” Stone writes. “But the consequence is that we’re over-stimulated, over-wound, unfulfilled.” Our productivity suffers too. At work, for example, I have caught myself in meetings being tempted to check and respond to e-mail even as one of my colleagues is presenting something. And simultaneously I’m likely to have a few chat windows open in parallel conversations and be trying to inhale my lunch as well.
I’m getting everything done at once, or so it seems. However, when I look back I see that my time was actually not that productive. I’m not really sure of anything I “got done.” I can’t recall any details of what was presented. I can’t remember the flavors of my food or even tell you what I ate. Except that there is food spilled on my keyboard that gives me some clues. And I have sent an embarrassing message in the wrong chat window.
This technology that is our brain is exceptionally good at focusing on one thing at a time—not more. There must be a reason why you never see an accomplished violinist practicing the violin while watching a game on television. Our brain also takes time to switch from one task to another, and the incessant back-and-forth required by doing too many things at once drains our energy. The brain takes time to exit one task and gather itself around the next task. Whichever Zen master told us, “Eat when hungry, sleep when tired” had something profound on his mind beyond just a witty one-liner.
What works for me is a simple system. I pick the most important and urgent single task in front of me. I set a timer and power through the single task in a focused manner. When I am done or the timer goes off, I stop—or work a few extra minutes until I reach a stopping point—then take a short break of a few minutes, get some water, or take a short walk on the floor or outdoors. Then I tackle the next most important single task.
Sometimes, if I need to work on a large task, such as drafting a presentation I’m giving at a meeting in Toronto, I’ll alternate tasks. I might work on my presentation for 30 minutes, attend to e-mails for another 30, and then switch back to my presentation. In contrast, if I’m working toward a tight deadline, then I might stay with that task until I’m finished. The system allows for flexibility; the choice is yours.
The second thing I do is make appointments with myself. I block out chunks of time in my calendar that read, “Work block to finish [the specific project].” For example, instead of responding to e-mails as they come, I will block out two hours just for e-mail and process hundreds of messages in one sitting. When it is a formal appointment—even though it’s with myself—I am more likely to commit myself to doing that task. And if you are in a corporate setting, no one else is going to spot an open window on your calendar that they can hijack to draw your attention to something else.
According to Tony Schwartz, who wrote in a Harvard Business Review blog in 2013 about the cost of multitasking, “The biggest cost is to your productivity. In part, that’s a simple consequence of splitting your attention, so that you’re partially engaged in multiple activities but rarely fully engaged in any one. In part, it’s because when you switch away from a primary task to do something else, you’re increasing the time it takes to finish that task by an average of 25 percent. But most insidiously, it’s because if you’re always doing something, you’re relentlessly burning down your available reservoir of energy over the course of every day, so you have less available with every passing hour.”
A simple suggestion that Tony makes is to do the most important thing first in the morning, for 60 to 90 minutes, with a clear start and stop time. Resist every impulse to distraction, knowing that you have a designated stopping point. The more absorbed you can get, the more productive you’ll be. When you’re done, take a few minutes to recharge. “When you’re engaged at work, fully engage, for defined periods of time,” he writes. “When you’re renewing, truly renew. . . . Stop living your life in the gray zone.”
I tried hard for years to be the first person in the history of humankind to prove that multitasking really works—that we can be effective in the “gray zone.” Paradoxically, I have found that doing one thing at a time actually helps me get more things done and do them better. Here is the dirty little secret. Our brain is one of the most complex, sophisticated working systems we know of. Give it one task to focus on and it can perform brilliantly. Give it five tasks to do at once and it crumbles. Why mess with it?