When was the last time you really focused on one thing at a time? That could mean driving your car and not using your phone, listening to the radio or drinking your coffee. Someone recently shared that they feel like they are wasting time if they are not doing two things at once. Others say they feel that can get more done if they jump from task to task to try and pare down their “to do” list.
When I was in college, mom would make her special coffeecake for me to take back whenever I was home for a weekend. I always remember my Christmas ritual when I would make them for people at the office. To make good use of my time during the busy holidays, I would mix up the batter for half a dozen of them at a time in bowls and then bake them in the evening when I had some extra time. Then there was the time that the phone rang in the middle of the mixing ingredients and I got distracted. Twenty minutes later I could not remember where I had stopped adding the baking powder. Needless to say that was a teachable moment for me about upgrading my multitasking strategies.
Sometimes handling several things at once seems unavoidable. Knowing that it often increases stress and errors, can promote fatigue and may lead you to be more easily agitated may be a reason to start to consider modifying your patterns a bit. Awareness of when you do multitask/task switch and its impact on the quality of your life might help you to consider making some simple changes.
Here are a few basic tips:
1. Set a time limit on the task you switched to. Make a deadline for returning to your original task. It actually helps to keep you more efficient.
2. Try setting better boundaries. When I call someone I try to ask them if it is a good time to talk. With lifestyle changes you cannot always expect to call a person’s home or cell phone and find someone available to talk. The person may be in the middle of something important, on a trip or handling an emergency situation. Asking if it is a good time allows someone to say if they are in the middle of something and to set up a time to return the call. Being able to finish what you are doing versus task switching all the time is a good habit to develop.
3. Use some proactive strategies. When you are interrupted doing a task like the coffee cake scenario, mark where you left off. Had I taken a few seconds to put the baking powder in front of the bowl where it needed to be added next, that problem would not have occurred. Turn the stove off if you decide to get the mail then get caught talking to a neighbor just a little longer than planned. Put a note on the project you are doing that will give you a clue where you ended, what you had on your mind to do next or whatever will help you to pick up where you left off more effectively. Asking someone to wait for a few extra seconds is a way to better take care of the stress that can come from multitasking.
“The brain is a lot like a computer. You may have several screens open on your desktop, but you’re able to think about only one at a time.”
William Stixrud, PhD, Neuropsychologist