How NOT to multi-task

Does your head sometimes feel full of to do lists, with ideas and things that you want or need to get done?

Everything seems to be shouting loud for your attention and you don’t know which way to turn.

Your head aches and the tension rises in your body. In the night, you lay awake trying to categorise or rank them into an order.

You wake up exhausted

Check email, check Facebook, check Twitter, make breakfast, make to do list, check email, add more things to list.

Brief break for caffeine stop. Drop plans for exercise or play. Check email at same time.

As I embark further into my start up journey, the more ideas I have for projects I want to create. Each idea, in turn, leads onto more ideas. Before I know it, my brain feels like it is, literally, going to explode. Each idea is vying for my attention and I just can’t focus.

I know the advice is to start small . I get that but putting it into practice is so hard. Instead, I fall into the trap of trying to solve the overwhelm with multi-tasking.

The bad news is multi-tasking is bad for your brain and your productivity.

One of the world experts on divided attention (yes it’s a thing) and Professor of Neurology at MIT, Dr. Earl Miller, explains that as humans we can’t actually focus on several things at once.

What in fact happens is that our brain switches from one task to another task rapidly. This takes up a lot of energy in our brains and the cost of all this switching causes us to stumble and slow down. Multi-tasking is just an illusion.

Eeek!! (I hear you cry) so if multitasking is bad for me, what can I do instead?

Here are the 5 steps I have been putting into practice, when I feel overwhelmed.

1) Get it out of your head

When I was feeling a bit (ok a lot) overwhelmed by all my ideas recently, I grabbed a piece of piece of paper and started to write all my to dos down.

Do it for a minimum of ten minutes. It will feel such a relief just to get the ideas out of your head. Your brain can then relax knowing that the ideas are captured somewhere.

When you are done, go through and cross out anything that is outside of your control or anything that is a ‘meh’ (anything that is a ‘should’ but does not really need to get done). You should then be left with a list that you can use to plan.

2) Come away from it

Once you have all your ideas out of your head, come away from them.

Change your scenery, play, take a break. This will refresh your brain and enable you to focus better.

Do whatever works for you. Strutting your stuff around the kitchen to your favourite tune, the gym, a swim. The world is your oyster.

3) Plan

Now you’re hopefully refreshed and ready to tackle that list, step 3 can begin. Firstly, take a look at your list and ask yourself what are the most important things. What actions are going to help you move further towards your goals. Keep doing this until you have an ordered list.

Once you have an ordered list, start scheduling this into your week. Schedule in one thing at a time to your calendar. This will allow your brain to fully focus on the task in hand.

Schedule in particular times for checking email and social media so that you are tackling it in a focused way rather than having to switch from the task you are doing every time a notification pops up. The point of the planning is to avoid, as much as possible, switching between tasks.

Above all, don’t take it too seriously. Allow more time that you think for tasks and realise it is flexible. Sometimes, my plan goes out the window, more urgent things come up, things take longer than expected. However, having a structure, helps me focus. If I go off track, I know where to pick things back up and if I don’t then I’ll head on back to Step 1.

4) Stop using your phone as an alarm clock

Now you have a plan in place, it should be straightforward to just get up and follow it, right? Oh if only our human minds were that easily trained. The truth is we love a distraction. We love nothing more than instant gratification and nothing soothes our cravings quite like a quick check of email or social media.

I have found, that even if I tell myself I won’t check my email first thing, once the alarm clock goes off, I get hooked. Hooked in a cycle of checking email, social media and before I know it I’m liking pictures of cute cats.

The great news is, it is not your fault. I have recently read the Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel Levitin. In it Levitin references experiments which show that each time we process an email, our brain receives a dose of reward chemicals. We feel good because we have achieved something.

Similarly, checking social media makes us feel more connected and again we receive another shot of reward chemicals. It becomes a neural addiction as we crave these hormones and the reward seeking part of our brain couldn’t care less whether these actions are moving us further towards our goals.

So, help your brain out. Remove the temptation. Buy an alarm clock, turn the phone off and place it in another room until you actually need it. Start the day as you mean to go on.

5)Start training the brain to focus

Now you’re not checking your phone first thing, this may buy you a little bit of extra time in the morning. Even if it’s only 10 minutes, why not use this 10 minutes to train your brain to focus.

Just as you can train your muscles at a gym so to can you train your brain to strengthen its ability to focus. How, you may ask? Through mindfulness.

By training your brain to focus your attention on the breath and the present moment, you may find that you start to carry this sense of focus to the rest of your day.

There is a great 10 minute TED talk by Andy Puddicome which introduces the concept for any newbies out there.

Now it’s over to you. As always, these are just my thoughts and I would love to know yours.

How do you deal with overwhelm ?