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!

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Time Management

Last month’s Ariadne carried a great article on managing information overload: Being Wired or Being Tired. I think the whole time management thing has become amplified since I became a remote worker. The distractions have become bigger (that pile of washing, that DIY that needs doing) but there are also less useful distractions (coffee with colleagues, a lunch break!) so at times I start to feel like I’m handcuffed to my desk.

So here are Sarah Houghton-Jan’s ten techniques to manage the overload. The article is really worth reading.

1. General Organisational Techniques
This suggests starting off by making an inventory of information received and the devices you use. You should then read up on dealing with information overload. Other ideas include thinking before sending (for emails and the like), you could always talk to someone face-to-face. You also need to schedule yourself, schedule unscheduled work and use your ‘down time’ to your benefit. Another key factor in being organised is staying tidy and keeping lists.
2. Filtering Information Received
Weed out what matters, schedule unplugged times and encourage your team to do the same.
3. RSS Overload Techniques
Only use rss when applicable, limit the number of feeds and organise the feeds you do use.
4. Interruptive Technology Overload Techniques
Interruptions make us less effective so only use interruptive technology when appropriate and do not interrupt yourself
5. Phone Overload Techniques
Again use the phone when appropriate, feel free to turn your mobile phone off or let it ring (a tricky one for people with children) and keep your number private. Remember Work = Work; Home = Home.
6. Email Overload Techniques
Set aside time to do emails and clear your inbox. Filter and file messages, delete and archive. Limit the number of lists you join.
7. Print Media Overload Techniques
Recycle it if you don’t need it and cancel unnecessary subscriptions
8. Multimedia Overload Techniques
Be strict with yourself and limit television viewing
9. Social Network Overload Techniques
Schedule time on your networks and pick a primary network to use.
10. Time and Stress Management
Use your calendar, take regular breaks, eliminate stressful interruptions. If you need to look for time-management software to help. Make sure you balance your life and work.

Some great tips in there, I’m going to try a few…when I get time!