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Why I Decided To Decrease My Productivity

And How It Led To Better Quality And Higher Quantity

“person writing on paper” by The Journal Garden | Vera Bitterer on Unsplash

“Must be a proficient multitasker.”

“Ability to successfully juggle multiple projects simultaneously.”

Both of those quotes came from the required skills section of various senior level job openings. It’s amazing how much we covet multitasking skills for senior positions. There is still this mystical belief that a good multitasker is superior in both qualitative and quantitative output.

I shouldn’t criticize. I used to live by the same lie up until a few months ago. I had seen the studies, read the books and had my own anecdotal experience to tell me otherwise. I so much wanted to believe in the multitasking myth.

The Discredited 3X5 Method

I relied on this nifty low tech solution to enhance my productivity. I kept a 3x5 index card in my back pocket. This card contained a list of ten things I wanted to accomplish each day. I’d cross off each task as I completed it. It provided an immense sense of satisfaction to see all of those to do’s crossed off.

I kept up this routine for over a year. I was productive. I got shit done. But it was quantity over quality. The more I accomplished the worse the quality of my output. Plus, it had the disastrous effect of extending projects. I would set a few tasks per day for several different projects. Instead of focusing on one project and finishing it quickly, I’d work on several projects that never completed. The process led to a lot of mistakes and rework. This had a demoralizing effect.

Attention Residue

In Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work, he writes about attention residue, an inherent problem with multitasking. When you switch from one task to another, you don’t pick up where you left off. It takes time to get back to where you were because your attention lingers on the previous task. It may take ten, fifteen or twenty minutes to get up to speed each time you switch tasks. That number adds up over the course of a day.

Last month, I ditched my top ten list. I kept the index card, but I limited myself to three tasks — a morning, afternoon and evening activity. My morning activity is fiction writing and editing. My afternoon activity is blog writing. My evening activity is promotional work. I’ve also eliminated parallel projects. I used to juggle a few fictional stories and blog posts. It felt productive to have several almost finished projects. This feeling of productivity was an illusion, of course. The switching costs extended the timelines of each of these projects.

I work a full-time job so I need to make every minute of my free time count. I have an hour, two if I’m lucky and motivated, in the morning. I get another hour and a half in the afternoon. I reserve the evening for activities that demand the least amount of cognitive effort.

The Rules

This single focused approach does not work if you allow distractions into your work effort. Checking your email, social media or news headlines defeats the purpose of a single focus work session. I don’t need access to the internet during my writing blocks until I’m ready to publish or save to the cloud. I shut off the WIFI on my laptop until the very end. This is an excellent technique if you can’t resist the lure of notifications.

It’s also necessary to timebound your effort. An open-ended goal allows your mind to drift. If you’ve got an hour, set a timer for an hour and work until the buzzer sounds. I like a five-minute break every thirty minutes, so I set two thirty minute timers.

Finally, define the specifics of your work effort before you start. Five minutes of prep time before your session goes a long way to maximizing your output. I write down one or two sentences on my index card. I clearly state the intention of each of my three projects for the day. The act of writing it down helps focus your mind on your goal.

The Results

By cutting back on the number of projects, I make better use of my limited time. I reach my daily writing goal much quicker. I finish my writing projects sooner. Switching costs are real. Multitasking hinders your ability to produce quality work.