Multitasking: The Devil We Love

hand to faceHow many times a day do you find yourself reading an email, talking to your [fill in the blank: office mate, husband, sister, roommate…] sending a text, and thinking about what you’re going to eat for dinner all at the same time? In a recent post, I touched on our cultural (and my own) obsession with time. When we’re strapped for time, we tend to try to do too many things at once. That usually leads to not doing anything well … or not actually completing anything. Ironically, doing more than one thing at a time actually slows us down.

Learning to Do What’s in Front of Your Face

I will never forget at the end of my first semester in college, when my favorite professor put her hand one inch in front of my face, fingers spread wide. She held it there for about a minute before saying, “Just do what’s right here.”

Then she moved her hand back another inch, “then do what’s here.” Another inch back, “then do what’s here…”

The group was a theatre class, and we were all stressed-out freshman getting ready for our first round of college finals. The theatre final was supposed to be the easy one, but getting on stage to perform was stress-provoking for many students, in addition to the final papers, exams and approaching holiday season. The teacher sensed the level of anxiety and took a pause in the lesson to address the anxiety. She used me as an example and put her hand right in front of my face.

“Focus on what’s right here, what’s right in front of your face. You can’t be everywhere at once.” The fact that this has stuck with me for so many years is probably a combination of the fact that this particular professor had a dramatic presence (appropriate for a theatre professor,) she was my favorite, and her hand was uncomfortably close to my face for a number of minutes with an entire class watching.

My roommate and I were in the same class and each time we noticed the other stressing out and multi-tasking, we would remind each other to focus by sticking a hand in front of the other’s face. Somehow it worked, and I continued the exercise in many different jobs, relationships and forums throughout my life.

Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, has said that it takes an average of 25 minutes and 26 seconds to get back to a task once distracted. Think of how much time you can save by avoiding these “ramp-back-up” minutes. Here are some tips to avoid multi-tasking, stay focused, and save time…

Simple Practice: 5 Ways to Avoid Multitasking

  • The Hand: Borrow my “reminder” tactic and train yourself to put a hand in front of your face as a reminder to focus on just your most pressing thing. This is helpful when you find yourself in the middle of doing too many things at once. It helps you to stop … and prioritize.
  • Create a List: At the beginning of each day, create your to-do list. Indicate what you need to get done in the day, and then specify your next tier priorities. Set an intention to finish your most important task before starting on the next most important task. This will help you address and complete the most important things on the list.
  • Ditch Distractions: Turn off your alerts on your computer (email, social media, calendar…) when you’re trying to get something done. If you feel the urge to check your email or Facebook, stop yourself, take a deep breath, and refocus on the priorities you set for the day.
  • Make Yourself Unavailable: Put your phone on silent (that means turn vibration off, too.)
  • Take a Time Out: If you find yourself multi-tasking and being unproductive, take a moment to sit in stillness and just focus on your breath before continuing. You can also try a short meditation during your time out.

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Melissa Eisler

Melissa Eisler, MA, PCC, is an ICF certified executive coach. She partners with leaders to develop their systems thinking, resilience, strategic communication skills, and executive presence in order to reach individual, team, and organizational goals. She blends more than 15 years of experience in leadership positions in the corporate world, with her master’s degree in organizational leadership and extensive background in mindfulness to help her clients master their leadership skills and steer their teams through challenges and change. Learn more about Melissa here.

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Melissa is the founder and principal executive coach at Wide Lens Leadership. As an ICF Certified Executive Coach with a Master's degree in organizational leadership, Melissa has coached hundreds of leaders ranging from C-suite to entrepreneur, from Fortune 500 companies to startups, and across diverse industries. She is passionate about supporting leaders and teams on their growth journeys toward greater impact, more collaborative teams, and stronger results.