Today's post comes out of desperation.
I spend my days toggling between computer windows. I start reading something, take a break to check email or Twitter, chase a link and open another window, telling myself I'll get back to that first window later. I return to the item I was working on, many moments later, only to have completely lost my train of thought. At the end of the day, I close down the computer with some 20 or 30 windows open. If I'm using Firefox, my good fortune (or punishment) is that the next time I start up, those windows greet me anew, creating a virtual to-do list that I'm just as unlikely to get to as I was when I first opened each of them.
My multitasking is not confined to my laptop. While preparing my morning tea, I might be paying a bill and getting it ready for the mail, fixing the dog's food and my own cereal, and trying to pay attention to the morning news. (After all, we should be able to do things while just "listening" since that's we do while driving.) As my fiance passes me on his way to the shower, I kiss him and half-heartedly engage in a "what are we doing tonight" exchange while still trying to listen to the news. I'm waiting for the day the dog's kibble ends up in my cereal bowl.
I knew I had a problem when I was on the phone with my mother and had to ask her to repeat what she'd just said about a recent visit to her doctor because I had momentarily left the conversation to read an incoming text message on my cell phone. That's when I picked up Dave Crenshaw's "The Myth of Multitasking: How Doing it All Get's Nothing Done," a little book that has been taunting me, for many months.
I'm usually wary of business books told in fable form, but I was immediately sucked into this one with its cast of office characters designed to debunk the myth that multitasking is a smart way to get things done.
Sally, the frazzled CEO, hires Phil, a business coach, because she knows she has a problem but can't quite put a name to it. In a scene-setting opening chapter, we get a glimpse of Sally's work environment where she can barely engage in a conversation with Phil because Sally, her right-hand-gal, is always dropping by Sally's office with "one quick question," and unexpected phone calls take her off task.
Phil, the coach, makes a quick score with Sally by having her perform a simple exercise. He asks her write a six word sentence on one line and a numerical strand on the line beneath it by adding one character at a time to each row. Then he has her write the sentence straight through on the first line before moving to the row of numbers. Phil times Sally both times and the result is stark -- when she moves between the two lines, it takes 63 seconds. When she writes each line straight through, it takes only 29 seconds. Lesson number one, the cost of "switchtasking," has been taught.
Helen, the constantly interrupting subordinate, knocks on Sally's door throughout the day because she has no idea when she might next get time with her boss. Which provides a nice setup for the book's next big lesson -- the proper use of a calendar to organize time for recurring meetings and to block off chunks of time for big tasks. This is an area where I already have some good systems in place, but the book's oversimplified approach to calendar management left me feeling that my extreme dependence on my calendar was a healthy rather than obsessive relationship.
My only complaint about this book was that the sidebars scattered throughout the book offering time management data or quotes from the ages distracted me. Was I supposed to interrupt my reading of the chapter text to process these or catch up with them all once I finished the chapter? I alternated between the two approaches (without timing myself or testing my comprehension), but still, I know that I had a momentary disconnect with the text each time I paused to read something like a Russian proverb telling me that when I chase two rabbits, I'll not catch either one.
By the time I was just halfway through the book, I was able to stop myself from switchtasking by telling myself that the task I was drawn to, that link I wanted to read, that awaiting email, would still be there once I finished the project at hand. I didn't get out the stopwatch but it was obvious that the saved minutes were racking up. I've even decided that there are times during my day where I can indulge in some switchtasking, moving between the comments on this blog, various news sites, Facebook, Twitter, IM, and email. But those times are not when I'm trying to write or engage in focused thought. And those times are now on the calendar. If not the real one, then the one in my head. At least for now.
We'll see how long I go before I have to pick up this little book again.
Anyone have any other good tips on how to avoid multitasking?
Today's post comes out of desperation.