Multitasking - the Road to Reduced Productivity

To do two things at once is to do neither.
— Publilius Syrus

I’ll admit it. From time to time, I have bad habits when it comes to internet browsing or looking at emails when they pop up on my screen.

A multitude of studies have demonstrated that your productive energy is depleted and your task focus is severely impaired by multitasking. It can take a half-hour to get back on task after responding to an email.

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And yet I still have friends who pride themselves on their ability to multitask. I guess it depends on what kind of work you do.

In my experience, heavy duty creative thinking, such as writing a novel, requires long periods of focused flow with limited interruptions. I need to use my best creative time - early mornings - when my energy is at a peak to do my best work. And guess what? That’s when I’m most tempted to browse the most current news and catch up on emails. I know better, but I still do it.

Yes, you can purchase apps that block browsing or emails, but I’ve found the best way to control the habit is through mindful awareness. When I find myself slipping into the multitasking habit, I keep a detailed time log for a week or two to see where and how I’m frittering away time, and secondly, I keep a small notepad next to me and simply put down a tick mark each time I have the impulse to browse or look at emails. It’s amazing how this awareness trick will bring the problem back to heel within a few days. It also works for any impulse control issue.

The other thing that I’m doing to maintain mental focus is sticking to a strict news ‘fast’. If reading something saps energy, then it’s a performance killer. Today’s news is so toxic that minimizing exposure is key to mental energy conservation. Yes, as an engaged citizen, you need to be aware of trends to do your civic duty such as voting responsibly, but do you really need to read the same general articles in the Washington Post, the New York Times and Politico and follow the bunny trails from each main link? Do you really need to watch two hours of cable talking heads each night as they focus on the most negative stories of the day? On your death bed, are you going to wish you’d read more news or watched more political pundits? I think not. I budget a few minutes each day to read the most important articles and opinion pieces and then that’s it. Then I do my physical exercise of the day to blow off the stress and anxiety that the news has produced.

Bottom line: If you want to maximize productivity, particularly as a writer, you can’t fall into indiscriminate multi-tasking or get sucked into endless bad news. Shepherd your mental energy - it’s priceless if you want to do creative work.