Want to get more done? Stop Multitasking. Want to do better work? Stop Multitasking.
Do you struggle with too many tasks and projects and don’t know how on earth you’ll ever get everything done? My advice: Stop multitasking!
Except for routine tasks, we humans are not capable of it, at least the overwhelming majority of us. In fact, multitasking is a misnomer. The word suggests that we do two tasks at the same time, when in fact our brain switches back and forth between two tasks. We just don’t notice it because it happens so darn fast.
You could argue that it doesn’t matter as long as you get your work done. But that is exactly where multitasking or the perception of multitasking turns into a problem. Our brain only has a limited capacity for processing data. The more complex a task, the more data needs to get processed, the more difficult it is for the brain to switch, the more time it takes.
If you imagine your brain as a multi-laned highway, all lanes are occupied with data that is needed to tackle the one task at hand, let’s say writing an email. If you add a second task, for example answering the phone, you split the data highway into two. Some lanes are occupied with data to write the email, but some lanes are now used to speak on the phone. Your attention is divided, your brain switches back and forth between the two tasks, and that has consequences.
The obvious result is that you may lose track of what the caller is saying because your brain was more engaged with the email. You may find that you made mistakes in your email because …. you get the idea.
Multitasking for most of us is only an illusion that impacts our performance, quality of work, and quite often also the quality of our lives. Instead of getting done more our brain is forced to switch back and forth between the two tasks, which essentially slows us down. An article of the American Psychological Association describes several experiments on task-switching. The goal was to determine the cost in time for switching tasks, and to assess how complexity or familiarity of tasks would impact the time of switching and productivity.
“Although switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks.”
What is even more important is the fact that […] “multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error” and it can cause mental blocks that […] “cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.”
In short, the mind and brain are not designed for heavy-duty multitasking because it negatively impacts our mental processing ability.
Remember those moments when you were immersed in your work, the phone rang, you picked up and… the great idea that you just had disappeared? You may not even have started talking, but by switching from one task to another, you lost it. And starting where you left off usually takes some time. You need to connect the dots again in order to continue.
What could this mean for you and your work? If you have something simple to do like putting dishes into the dishwasher, loading your washing machine, and at the same time talking with a friend on the phone – keep on doing it. I don’t think it will either impact your conversation nor the outcome of the laundry or dishes. But if you are working on something complex like writing a blog, doing some research, or writing a proposal, you may want to reconsider. Focusing on one task and finishing it not only gets stuff off your To-Do-list, but it also gives you a feeling of accomplishment.
Especially if you feel overwhelmed with the amount of work you have to do, take some time to plan. Write down what you have to do and then decide when you will do it. I know, it may sound more like additional work instead of helping you to get stuff off of your To-Do-list. But the benefit of this exercise is that you can use quiet and undisturbed time for the really heavy-lifting and do the easy stuff when you have to expect or deal with distractions.
Give it a try. For the next couple of days focus on one task at a time. Pick a time that will allow you to concentrate 100 percent on it. How does it make you feel? Did you get the task done quicker? Did you enjoy this uninterrupted focus time? How did it feel getting it completely done? Something like this?
I can’t wait to hear from you. Until next time, Regine
Last year I wrote a blog about working from home. I described a couple of situations that may arise testing your productivity and ultimately your success. Since then I dug a bit deeper, did some research, and had more conversations with people who have first-hand experience on the work-from-home front. I learned about their set up, their tools, what kind of problems they deal with, how they avoid distractions, how they stay motivated, and what they learned along the way to stay productive and, yes, happy as well.
Since there is quite a lot to cover, I decided to split this topic into two parts. Part 1 will focus on:
The importance of your workspace and work environment
How to combat loneliness while working from home
What tools and/or technologies support you
And part 2 will focus on:
Knowing your goals and planning your days
Taking breaks is important but easily forgotten
Building your own good work habits
Of course, it very much depends on your personality and your type of work, what problems or challenges you may face. So, let’s have a look and talk about ways to deal with them. The following suggestions may not be the (ideal) solution for you, but I hope they’ll inspire you to try and test them, experiment with your own ideas so that you’ll find out what works best for you.
1. The importance of your workspace and work environment
For some it is a no-brainer, for others it may be a revelation, that your workspace and work environment should support you, inspire you, and make you want to spend time there. It should be designed for the work you want and/or need to do and be free of interruptions and distractions. It should allow you to concentrate, be free of distractions and have undisturbed video conferences, phone calls, or whatever you need to do on a regular basis. Everything should be right at hand so that you can focus on your work instead of tools, technology, materials etc.
You don’t want to go chasing for a quiet space or a stable internet connection shortly before an important video call. This would be stressful and may have a negative impact on the conversation you’re going to have.
2. How to combat loneliness while working from home
As much as you may love not having to commute, at times you may feel very lonely working from home. There is nobody to chat with, go to lunch with, bounce an idea off, have a cup of coffee with when you are stuck, or ask about a movie or a game.
The typical recommendation to this problem is a coworking space. Yep, that may be one solution if you find the right coworking space. Right in terms of location, right in terms of people, and right in terms of how much it cost. But there are other options.
Another very common suggestion is the café. However, this comes with a caveat. Usually cafés are noisy places with lots of distractions. If you can’t block out the noise and distraction you won’t be very productive (noise-cancelling headphones come to mind). You also may fight over the few power outlets or feel guilty because you sit there for several hours and only consume a café latte. In short, you trade one evil for another. If you happen to know a nice, quiet café ignore what I have just said.
Moving to the next option. One article I read suggested to start a Meet-up group and arrange coworking days once or twice a week at a convenient location. I haven’t tried it, but it sounds like an idea worth pursuing. The issue here could be finding a suitable location especially if we are talking about a group.
This brought the idea to my mind that you could ask other home workers if they would like to “co-work” once or twice a week. Two or three people are much easier to accommodate in a café. If you have found the right people for your co-working day(s) you may even invite them to your home if you have enough room.
Have you considered checking out your local library? It’s a quiet place, distractions are at a minimum, and libraries have desks or tables to work at. Could that be an alternative to working at home?
If you have any other ideas, please share them so that other “home workers” can benefit from them.
3. What tools and/or technologies support you
Tools and/or technology are also a big part of supporting you when working from home and connecting with the world. It is no secret that there are a myriad of tools, apps, and programs out there with the intention of making your life and work easier, faster and more productive. And that is why a word of caution may be in order. Don’t fall into the trap of having to try each and every one. Before you make a decision, if that decision is up to you, take some time to gain a clear picture of what kind of tool is really useful for your particular situation. Don’t be afraid to ask others about their experience and why they chose one app, program or tool over another. If you have narrowed down the options, do your own research, look at You Tube demos and check out trial versions if available. Then, make your decision. It may take a bit of time to find the perfect solution, but it will pay off in the long term.
As a simple example, some people love an electronic calendar that synchronizes with their phone, others still prefer a paper version. If you have a choice, pick the one that you feel most comfortable with and that’s easy to use. Just because something looks nice, is new and fancy doesn’t mean it’s meant for you. I’ll come back to the calendar in part 2 of my blog. It’s a simple but also important tool when it comes to your planning.
After this short detour, let’s get a little more specific. I do believe it’s a no-brainer to have a reliable phone and computer. Remember, it’s your work that’s on the computer and you don’t want to lose any of it just because it dies at a critical moment.
A stable internet connection is also mandatory, especially if you make video calls.
Since we are talking about video communication… It’s one of the most recommended services and tools for “home workers”. I don’t know anyone who is working from home who doesn’t use a video communication tooI/service. It doesn’t replace face-to-face meetings, but it certainly makes working together much easier. You can have team meetings, client meetings, share your screen, record conversations, give presentations, or simply reach out and have a chat with someone to keep in touch with. Especially if you’re working in a team that’s scattered all over the country video communication is always mentioned as being a vital tool. Team members feel more connected and build stronger relationships which usually translate into better cooperation and work results. I couldn’t agree more.
There are a couple of video communication tools/services that I used over the years. I’m now mostly working with Zoom because it is well known, has a calendar add-in for scheduling purposes, has a recording option, is easy to use, and it works. Other tools/services are Skype, WhatsApp, JoinMe, Telegram, Duo, Facetime, to mention just a few. Depending on your needs, pick the one that works for you.
How do you keep track of your action items and projects? Do you know when you should reach out to a client or customer and follow up on a proposal? Are you part of a team that needs to stay informed and on the same page or are you a solopreneur and keep all threads in your own hands? Like with video communication there are many tools to choose from. Some are more designed for one-person use and others are designed for teams.
Most of the time I keep control over my action items and use a simple task manager such as Microsoft To Do, Wunderlist, Things, Todoist. They are intuitive and simple to use, exactly what I like about them. I have them on my phone and on my desktop, which allows me to add action items whenever I need to. No lost notes anymore, everything is in one place and always accessible.
If you prefer a paper version you could use the Bullet Journal method, Filofax, or any of the systems available in office supply stores or online. The market for analog productivity tools has exploded over the last couple of years and offers a huge variety. Every single one claims it will help you get better organized and keep track of your work and tasks. It sounds a little bit like a miracle cure. Keep in mind that it’s still up to you to use it and make it work aka keep it easy and simple.
If you are part of a team determine what exactly you would like a cooperation management tool or project management tool to do for you and your team. This is not my strong suit and I only know a few such as Trello, Asana, Basecamp and ZOHO. But if I had to decide which one to use, I would ask around, watch online demos, and test-run the ones that fulfil my requirements and are easy to use.
I know I said it many times, but ease of use is always the highest priority for me. I want all the tools, programs and apps I use to support me and make my life easier – not the contrary.
If you have found a system, tool or app that works for you, keep it. There is truth in saying never change a running system. Except if you absolutely have to.
Having said that, change is the most reliable constant in life. Your work or work environment may change. That’s a great moment to check in with your habits (more about habits in part 2 as well), tools and systems. Do they still serve you or is it time to have a closer look and make some changes?
That’s it for today. If you have any wisdom to share, please do so. I’ll continue with part 2 of “Make Working from Home Work for You” in two weeks. Until then,
For many the idea of working from home sounds like bliss.
You get up in the morning, brush your teeth, put on a sweater and jeans (or
stay in you PJs), grab a cup of coffee and bang, ready for work. No makeup or
shaving, no dressing up, no stressful morning commute.
Before you say a wholehearted “hell yes, that’s for me! I’d
love to work from home,” hold on for a sec. Have you ever given it some thought
what the “perfect” work environment is for you? As tempting as it may appear,
working from home has its challenges as well, and it very much depends on your
personality and/or work situation if this dream is a dream come true or turns
into a nightmare.
Join me on a little imaginary tour and have a look at some of the most common situations I’ve encountered or heard of to find out more and help you make the right decision.
The Detour Morning
You’re ready to start your day. You have your coffee and go
straight to your computer and start planning your day… and out of the blue you
realize you have to wash your gym clothes because you want to go to the gym
later that day. You quickly get up, put your gym clothes in the washing
machine, and while you’re at it, you also sort the rest of your laundry. It
will be so much quicker to put it in the washing machine later, and it’ll only
take a minute or two.
You go back to work. Oh, where were you? Ahhh right,
planning what you need to do today. You finish your list and are ready to get
to work when you see today’s date. It’s Feb. 20th and your Mom’s
birthday is coming up. Oh no! You wanted to get her that book she mentioned a
couple of times. No big deal. You quickly go online and order the book. But
stop, wasn’t there this book your friend mentioned the other day that you
absolutely must read? What was the title? Something like…. You’re sure it won’t
be difficult to find it, and off you go searching for it on Amazon. While
searching you come across some very interesting titles. You quickly read their
summaries and add them to your wish list.
Back to work. Darn, what was it that you wanted to do? It
takes you a couple of seconds but finally you remember that you wanted to
finish the copy for the newsletter and find some images for it.
By the time you start your day it’s not 7:00 am or 8:00 am,
it’s already 10:00 am, maybe even later, and you may have wasted some of your
most productive and creative time. Please don’t get hung up on the specific time.
It could be any time of the day that is your best and most productive and
creative time. It’s about getting distracted and taking a lot of detours before
doing the work. It could be procrastination (more about that in a future post)
or just plain lack of discipline.
I know, discipline is not a sexy word, but without it making
progress will take much, much longer. Do you have what it takes to stay
focused, even when the laundry or your conscience calls because you almost
forgot your Mom’s birthday? A good policy I found is to plan for these
interruptions. Set yourself a “focus time” for 45 minutes, an hour or an hour
and a half. Whatever works best for you, and do the work. If a thought or idea
comes up, have a piece of paper and a pen ready to jot it down and return to
your work immediately for the remainder of your focus time. Then take a break.
Wash your gym clothes, get that gift … and keep an eye on the time. You’ll be
surprised how quickly ten minutes pass, especially on social media.
The Run-an-Errand Scenario:
Your spouse is at the office and sends you a text. She just
remembered that she forgot to go grocery shopping. Unfortunately, she has to
stay late and can’t possibly do it. Since you’re working from home, it surely
isn’t a big deal for you to quickly run to the grocery store and get a few
items for dinner.
Working from home does allow for a lot of freedom and
flexibility, and running an errand may not be a big deal. Just make sure that
your partner or spouse, or anybody else for that matter, don’t take it for
granted or expect that you’re always available when they need you. You
have to set boundaries and stay in control of your day. Remember, your work is
equally important, and you may have to say no. You call the shots!
The Little-kids Scenario:
I found this to be the most challenging one. And as you can read, it’s based on my own experience. I have a room that is my dedicated office. Yes, I feel very fortunate and consider this an advantage. But – and I don’t write this lightly – I also have a son. Kids, no matter what age, don’t necessarily differentiate between you “being at home” and “working from home.” If something important happens in their lives, they want your attention, and they want it now. When they’re little they may need a hug, or someone to console them. When they’re older they may need to talk something over, help with their homework, or just tell you about the injustice at school, you name it.
There is no one-solution-fits-all to this type of
interruption. At least I haven’t found it yet. It depends on your kids, their
age and your type of work. With little kids I believe you have to take the
time. If you try to rush them, you just prolong the situation. They instantly
feel that you are not available to them, and that makes it even harder to
console them. With older kids you can set rules. We only had a few, but these
were non-negotiable. For example, when I was on the phone, no interruptions
were permitted, except for emergencies. That worked pretty well. You could use
a do-not-disturb sign or close the door. In that case, they’re not allowed to
enter and/or disturb you. Plan your most difficult and important work when your
kids are not around and reserve less intense work for times that may not be
uninterrupted, and I’m not just talking about kids.
Let’s take a break here. There are a million other things
that I could have mentioned: checking social media, getting something to eat,
making a quick phone call… you name it.
The point I’m trying to make is, do you have the discipline
not to fall for “quick” interruptions and detours? Can you resist the “call of
your spouse” to go shopping? Can you arrange your day around your kids so that
you can do the work you need to do? How about social media? It’s common
knowledge that we greatly underestimate the time we spend on Facebook,
Take some time and consider your situation, your
personality, and your work environment. What works best for you? What is your
ideal workplace? What gets your creative juices flowing? When do you focus
Tell me about how you dealt with some of the challenges
while working from home or what made you decide to go to the office instead.
Last year I blogged in depth about Urgent vs. Important work. I explained what urgent and what important means, why urgent occurs (at least most of the time), and how to deal with it in a better and more productive way.
Doing some online research, I happened to come across a blog written by Seth Godin with almost the same title. He also makes a case for Important vs. Urgent work in one of his February 2017 blogs, but he gave it a different spin. Here it goes:
“You know you should be focusing on the long-term journey, on building out the facility, signing up new customers or finishing your dissertation.
But instead, there’s a queue of urgent things, all justifiable, all requiring you and you alone to handle them. And so, you do, pushing off the important in favor of the urgent.
Of course, everyone has this challenge, but some people manage to get past it. Even you, the last time you made a major move forward. Think about it–those urgencies from a few years ago: who’s handling them now?
The reason we go for urgent is that it makes us feel competent. We’re good at it. We didn’t used [sic] to be, but we are now.
Important, on the other hand, is fraught with fear, with uncertainty and with the risk of failure.
Now that you know why, you can dance with it.”
Which of the two is you? Take the time to find out and, I
paraphrase: “Now that you know (..), (…) dance with it.”
When presented with the choice to attend to something ‘urgent’ vs. something ‘important’ what do you do? I bet most of the time you will drop everything and take care of the urgent. It is a natural response. If something is urgent it has to be done right away, doesn’t it? And what does this have to do with your productivity?
Let’s have a closer look. What does urgent mean and what does important mean?
Urgent by nature is something that pops up unexpectedly. It is something we hadn’t planned or even considered doing at a particular day or time (assuming you plan your days 😉).
In many cases, dare I say most cases, it is something we forgot to do or take care of earlier on. Or we just didn’t feel like doing it when there still was time and now… it is urgent because we are running out of time (also known as procrastination). Or we never took the time to plan a project with its many steps and possible hurdles. Many of these ‘urgent scenarios’ are the consequences of poor planning and/or procrastination; sometimes our own, sometimes someone else’s. Most could have been prevented with a little effort, either our own or someone else’s.
Of course, (really) urgent stuff or (really) urgent situations exist. Despite our best efforts, we cannot foresee everything and cannot plan for everything. Unexpected things can and will happen: you may be called to a family emergency, you may have a crucial member of your team call in sick… you get the picture.
The difference between the two: the first ones were preventable, the second ones weren’t.
Important on the other hand is a deliberate action that moves you, your business, your relationship, or anything else for that matter to the next level. It leads to progress in an area you decided to work on and devote your attention to. It may be working on a project, it may be preparing a product launch, it may be doing something for your family. No matter which area of your life or business we are looking at, it implies taking the next step.
I don’t mean to imply that paying your bills or getting your car serviced isn’t important in terms of preventing you from adverse effects or harm. I consider paying your bills or arranging for a car service or scheduling a doctor’s appointment ‘mundane work’. It can easily be scheduled at a time that is convenient and, most importantly, does not interfere with your important work.
Do you see the difference between urgent and important? I believe it is obvious why telling one from the other is crucial. Far too often are we dragged into doing ‘urgent’ stuff that, truth be told, isn’t really our concern or at least shouldn’t be our concern. But how do you prevent yourself from jumping up when someone uses the word ‘urgent’ for a request?
Know and be clear about what is important to you. What kind of urgent is really ‘your’ urgent that you have or will attend to? What is aligned with your business, your life or whatever the circumstances. If you know, you have a choice. You decide whether or not to rush to the rescue.
So again, what does this have to do with productivity?
Very simple, rushing to the rescue takes time and energy, your time and your energy. It disrupts your day and quite possibly creates the next ‘urgent’, and the next, and the next. Urgent takes away the time you need for your own business, your family, your friends, yourself. Instead of focusing on your ‘important’, you allow circumstance to dictate where your time goes and that does have an impact on what you get done and what you will achieve.
Do you know what is important to you?
If you need help to figure it out, call me or shoot me an email.
Until next time.
This sounds simple and like a no-brainer, but listening to people around me, especially this time of year, I hear them say things like: ‘I have to catch up on my work’ or ‘there are not enough hours in a day’ or ‘I am so behind…”.
I do realize that the holiday season poses some additional challenges, but honestly, are you always up-to-date with your work? I for one struggle with this problem occasionally. I feel overwhelmed by the sheer thought of the mountain of work ahead of me and, at the end of the day, I feel I haven’t done enough. My to-do list doesn’t seem to get shorter, but longer instead.
Most of the time, our natural response to this conundrum is to try and be even more effective, more productive and to manage time even better. To squeeze every minute out of a day to get done what is on our to-do list. But what exactly does this mean ‘being more effective, or more productive, or managing our time better?’ We all have (only) 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week, period.
I am pretty sure you believe that you are a good planner when it comes to your time and work. So why doesn’t it work?
Based on my experience and by observing people at work, there are a couple of components that contribute to this problem:
Lack of clarity
Working on ‘urgent’ stuff vs. ‘important’ stuff
Let’s tackle the most obvious culprit first: Distractions.
Now you will argue that distractions can’t be avoided. I totally agree. There are emails to reply to, text messages to respond to, phone calls to take, colleagues, kids, friends or family members to answer to…. I get the picture. In short, you start working on an important project and just when you got into the groove…. the phone rings, or a message pops up on your computer screen, or your mobile phone buzzes with a new Social Media message.
Did you notice something? All of these distractions can be controlled by you. It is your choice to respond right away and allow others to control your day, or you can curb these distractions as best as you can. How? Here are a couple of ideas:
Silence your phone for a period of time and focus on your work/project.
Turn off screen messages on your computer. Nothing is that important that it can’t wait for 90 minutes.
Close your office door to signal that you don’t want to be disturbed.
Put a sign up ‘please do not disturb’.
Put headphones on to show your colleagues ‘please don’t disturb me’ if you are working in a cubicle.
Create a rule or sign that your family knows you don’t want to be disturbed if you are working in a home office. Your kids could craft that sign for you .
Turn off your TV or radio.
Turn off your Social Media alerts.
Maybe the most important step: reflect on the flow of your day and plan your important work at a time that you can focus uninterruptedly.
You will be amazed how much you will get done if you devote 100 percent attention to your work or project. If you are not used to focusing for a longer period of time, start easy. Sometimes 20 minutes is all it takes to move a project forward. Sometimes you may need more time. The golden rule, if you will, is everything within 20 to 90 minutes. After 90 minutes you should take a break. Get up and stretch your legs, get a cup of coffee or tea or simply enjoy that you made some major progress.
But, if you can’t avoid an interruption because your boss is calling or it is something ‘very urgent’ (I will write about ‘urgent’ in another blog), by all means, deal with it as quickly as possible and get back to your ‘focus work’.
I hope this gave you some food for thought. What will you stop doing to cross something off of your to-do list? Do you have other suggestions? I would love to hear from you.
To more great work (borrowed from Michael Bungay Stanier)! Regine