The world keeps going faster and faster, but being more productive is not the real solution to our unending busyness. We’re exploring the solutions to busy in our six-part series based on the book, Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much by Tony Crabbe. The first step is to reduce task switching.
One of the most obvious symptoms of how busy we are is how often we switch from task to task in a vain attempt to get ahead. This explanation of attention deficit disorder (ADD) from expert Edward M. Hallowell may sound familiar:
“People with untreated ADD rush around a lot, feel impatient wherever they are, love speed, get frustrated easily, lose focus in the middle of a task or a conversation because some other thought catches their attention, bubble with energy but struggle to pay attention to one issue for more than a few seconds… feel they could do a lot more if they could just get it together…feel powerless over the piles of stuff that surround them, resolve each day to do better tomorrow, and in general feel busy beyond belief.” (Crabbe, 43)
When our busyness starts to sound like a treatable disorder, we should be worried.
Task Switching Hurts
The fact is all this frantic task switching and multitasking isn’t helping us get the job done better:
- Research has shown that office workers change tasks every three minutes. All that switching makes us 40% slower. No wonder it feels like we’re not getting anything done.
- Trying to multitask makes it even worse: “When we do more than one thing at a time, dual-task interference drops the performance of a Harvard MBA student to that of an eight-year-old.” (61)
- One study even found that it takes workers an average of 23 minutes to recover from an interruption and get back to the original task.
- We’re even tempted to check our phones every 6.5 minutes. I love my technology and social media, but we’re starting to get into addiction-level temptation here.
All that striving to overcome busy doesn’t get us anywhere.
We’re tempted to seek out the easy tasks. It can actually make us happier to do mundane, rote tasks that don’t challenge us.
“The endless stream of electronic chatter and our horribly full agendas service our need to feel useful, and our desire to appear hardworking, but they are also wonderful opportunities to procrastinate from doing the hard thinking.” (132)
In fact, it’s science. We actually get a shot of dopamine when we switch tasks, which lulls us into this sense that we’re being effective. We’re feeling buzzed, so we must be getting stuff done, right? But the reality is we’re just deluding ourselves.
What we’re really doing is wasting time and energy. One study said “multitasking was wasting 28 billion hours of knowledge workers time a year in the U.S. alone.” (53)
So cut out task-switching and multitasking. We’ll talk more later about what to do instead, but here are some tips to help you focus.
6 Tips to Help Stop Task Switching
- 1. Shut off notifications – Whether it’s email, chat, social media or even weather updates, those alerts, banners and pings that keep vying for our attention need to go away. Shut them all off. Seriously.
- 2. Close your email – Don’t leave your email open on your computer all day. Check it at specific times throughout the day, and ignore it the rest of the time.
- 3. Get it out of your head – Sometimes distractions are important—or at least they feel important. An idea pops into your head and it’s something you need to do—just not right this moment. Dispense with those distractions. Have a notebook for ideas you need to get out of your head. Jot them down, and then get back to work. Then come back to that notebook, maybe once a week, and look for those things that seemed so important. If they really were, you can address them now. If they weren’t that important, aren’t you glad you got them out of your head?
- 4. Make a plan – Come up with a plan of attack for your work. This will help you focus on the task at hand. You’re more likely to stick to it when you have a plan.
- 5. Reward yourself – Sometimes we really enjoy our distractions. Rather than constantly fighting that temptation, give in to it once in awhile. Take a break and browse social media for a few minutes (set a timer so you don’t get lost in something and waste more time than you can afford).
- 6. Track It – If you don’t think these things are really a distraction for you, prove it. Use an app such as RescueTime or DeskTime to see how you actually use your day.
We have all this wasted effort and lost time from constantly shifting focus and trying to get too much done in too little time. There has to be a better way. And there is.
Next time we’ll dive into how approaching your work differently can defuse the busy.