Taking it One Unitask at a Time

So while I write this blog post I’m also drinking a coffee, checking Twitter, replying to a text message and printing out some documents…

Anyway yesterday while eating my lunch and sunbathing in the garden I read an interesting article in Saturday’s Guardian magazine (OK I’m a bit behind with my reading) on unitasking. The article was an edited extract from AJ Jacobs book entitled My Experimental Life. He spends a month cutting out multitasking to see if it improves his concentration.

Quite a bit of data is now piling up that suggests that multitasking not only reduces our ability to concentrate (the Google is making us stupid train of thought) but is also dangerous (accidents caused by distractions at the wheel).

While being distracted all the time at work isn’t going to cause me to kill anyone I do personally feel that I’ve suffered recently from too much going on at the same time.

Multitasking makes us feel efficient, but it actually slows down our thinking. Our brains can’t handle more than one higher cognitive function at a time. We may think we’re multitasking, but in fact we’re switchtasking, toggling between one task and another. The phone, the email, the phone, back to the email. And each time you switch, there’s a few milliseconds of start-up cost. The neurons need time to rev up.

I’ve written in the past about the need to take time away from your PC, have a coffee break, manage your time effectively and take some alone time. Taking time out to work on a task is really important. Last Friday I turned the PC off for the whole day, took my felt tips outside and created lots of mind maps for a new project I’m working on.

Having everything turned off really worked. I actually got a lot more done.

Peter Bregman talks about the six things he discovered while unitasking:

  • First, it was delightful. (He noticed amazing things he wouldn’t normally notice.)
  • Second, I made significant progress on challenging projects.
  • Third, my stress dropped dramatically.
  • Fourth, I lost all patience for things I felt were not a good use of my time.
  • Fifth, I had tremendous patience for things I felt were useful and enjoyable.
  • Sixth, there was no downside.

I don’t think I’ll be able to stop multi-tasking. I have 3 young children so I need to able to switch my concentration in a matter of moments.

I can remember a few years back I was at a Christening party. It was the height of summer and we were drinking in the garden. I was chatting to someone and 1) caught a knocked over wine glass in one hand and 2) a toddler who had gone flying in the other whilst 3) finishing my sentence. My conversation partner seemed fairly impressed at my skill, I’m sure most Mums would be just as quick.

I need to be able to concentrate in parallel on several things and now unfortunately doing one job at a time feels like I’m being lazy. Yet I can see it isn’t always the most productive way to work.

So if I don’t answer your email or reply to your message then maybe I’m unitasking, and that takes real concentration!


10 thoughts on “Taking it One Unitask at a Time

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  2. Thanks Paul – Really interesting article.

    I now know that what I need is a “distraction chair” – in fact a “distraction room” would be even better….

  3. Hi Marieke,

    I’ve encountered this recently at conferences – in particular I find trying to concentrate on the speaker, write notes, monitor the back channel and tweet all at the same time simply too much. I don’t have the answer yet, but I do wonder quite how much of my knowledge these days is based on just understanding the ‘abstract’. I’m learning a lot about a few things an nothing much in depth.

    I’d love to be able to unitask, but I think I’m in too deep with all this information exchange going on across the globe.


  4. I’d agree. We are victims of our own success when it comes to information communication.

    I’d advocate turning off the PC and all the rest of your gadgets at least once a month for some real thinking and doing time.

    I don’t see any doctors checking their email while carrying out operations! Us information professionals need to start being a bit more focussed!

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