Stop multitasking and get something done

You could read the headline on this post as a directive, a sharing of wisdom you should heed if you want to succeed. Or you can take it for what it is: a goal on my to-do list.

I’ve heard that telling people your goals may be a good thing. It reinforces them, and the people you tell can help you stick to them because they help hold you accountable. I’ve also read it’s a bad idea, but that is taking us into a whole other post, and the point of this one is to talk about doing just one thing at a time.

M*A*S*H: Dr. Charles Emerson Winchester III, played by David Ogden Stiers (RIP)

One of my favorite episodes from the TV series M*A*S*H is the one where a new doctor — Charles Emerson Winchester III — first joins the team in Korea, bringing his inflated ego into the mix. When one of the characters asks why he’s taking so long to do something, he replies, “I do one thing at a time. I do it very well. And then I move on.”

For a long time now, I have prided myself on being able to multitask. I can’t just sit and do one thing — that’s inefficient! If a TV show is on that I want to see, I will sometimes get on the exercise bike instead of sitting on the couch. (OK, that one is going to continue because it’s a healthy habit.) But other times I will clean up my email, or pay my bills, or scroll through Instagram to catch up on what other people are doing. When I’m eating lunch, I rarely sit and eat. I catch up on instructional videos I’ve meant to watch, I read articles saved in my Pocket app, I work on email — or I write Medium posts.

What that usually means is that I’m not focused on the show I’m supposedly interested in, so I’m not catching all the visual cues that help tell the story or the nuances in dialogue. It means I’m not enjoying my lunch because I’m working in between bites as the entree becomes progressively colder and less appetizing. It means I’m responding to emails without giving them my full attention to details like grammar, spelling, sentence structure and context — all things that help me send shorter and more effective messages.

And be honest — who gives 100 percent of their attention in business meetings anymore? No one! With laptop computers, iPads, and cell phones at the ready, we enter meetings assuming at some point whatever is happening on email or social media will be more important and, quite likely, more interesting than what’s happening at the conference table. We could all help solve this problem by holding fewer meetings, especially those designed to hear people hear themselves talk. But, that is for another post. Help me; I’m wandering again!

It is so sorry that I’ve started becoming impatient waiting for websites to load — even at work where the connection to the Internet is blazing fast. So, I will load a site, and as that page takes milliseconds to appear fully, I switch to another tab and see what I can accomplish over there. The problem is, I have ended up with tabs open to pages and I can’t even remember why I went there. I also have gone to shut down my computer at the end of the day to find an open email with nothing in it. No recipient, no subject line, no body. And I can’t help but wonder what was so important I felt I needed to email someone about it, only to discover that I utterly failed on sending something.

I desperately need help in kicking this habit of multitasking. While drafting this Medium post, which took longer than it should have, I also started doing other things. I ate lunch and, sure enough, each bite of left-over pizza became colder.

I took care of some emails that came in. Changing that is going to be a tough one for me because I am a firm believer in inbox zero, and have suggestions for folks who want to be that way, too. But, again, that’s for another post. Stay focused people!

I went to post something to Hootsuite to schedule a tweet for later today and then remembered that I am writing a Medium post and the planned tweet could wait. I went to text someone about needing to talk to them today and then hesitated because it was during the standard lunch hour and I didn’t want them to think I needed to talk right now. That conversation can wait until later today, and therefore so could my texting.

It’s a sickness, really, and it’s contagious. When people see other people multitasking, they can’t help but think that they are just as talented and can accomplish just as much. But that’s a trap!

As I have worked on this post, I took one step in the right direction though. I minimized the screen that shows my email inbox. (I use three screens while I’m at work because it “helps with multitasking.” See, I’m addicted!) A while back I learned to give email notifications a cursory glance and let them disappear. I don’t even bother to reach over with the mouse and close them. I should probably turn them off because otherwise minimizing the email screen isn’t as effective. But in my job, I have to be on top of a lot of different things at once, so a quick glance at an incoming email notification to make sure it’s not of dire importance does matter.

Overall, though, I must stop multitasking. I have learned that my work can be good when I’m doing more than one thing at a time. But it can’t be great. I can’t “Do it very well.” I don’t believe anyone can.

Multitasking is not making you more productive. It is not improving your work output, regarding quality at least, and probably concerning quantity, too. Every second you take away from one task to give it to another is a second your first task is losing. We say we are multitasking, but what we are doing is task switching at an extreme pace. There is only one second available for each second of the day. In that second, you are doing just one thing, as you glance away from some other stuff you believe you are working to accomplish.

So I am committing myself to changing my ways. Will you join me? Or will you at least hold me accountable for my goal? I need to stop multitasking. I will stop multitasking. Someday, I want someone to ask how I found success. And I shall have my reply ready! “I do one thing at a time. I do it very well. And then I move on.” (I might even throw in a haughty New England accent, but then people might think I’m crazier than they already do.)

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