Is it possible to be a busy professional and not multitask from time to time? Probably not. But there are definitely approaches to multitasking that will be more effective than others when it comes to managing stress and simplifying your life.
Here are some pointers for making sure your multitasking pays off:
1. Don’t double up on things that matter. We’ll start with the usual disclaimer. The research is clear—there is no such thing as really multitasking. This means that your brain actually can’t focus on two things at once. If you are doubling up, your brain is constantly switching back and forth between tasks. Your effectiveness and your focus will be compromised when you multitask, so save it for things that don’t matter so much. It’s okay to talk on the phone to your friend while you dust the living room, but you are going to write a better presentation if you aren’t also switching back and forth between seven open windows on your computer and answering the phone at the same time.
2. Use tools and planning. My favorite kind of multitasking is the kind that doesn’t require more effort. This type of multitasking requires a bit more planning and advance thought, but it can pay off big. As I write this article, dinner (red beans and rice—yum!) is simmering away in the slow cooker downstairs. If I give myself time to stop and think in the morning, I can throw in a load of laundry and start the dishwasher before I head out the door for a run.
Multitasking doesn’t have to mean that you are doing all the work. I have a number of appliances that help me multitask—a coffee maker with a timer that brews the coffee while I sleep a little longer, a cute little robot (also on a timer) that vacuums my wood floors three mornings a week, and a bread machine that I can set and forget that will start the pizza dough at the time I tell it to.
You can also let the people who share your life be a part of your multitasking strategy. Keep grocery and errand lists where everyone can find them (or keep them on an app that can be shared like Evernote) so someone else can pick up what you need if they go to the store. If you take the time to write out a list of to-dos, you should also be able to enlist kids or partners to cross off some of the items while you are off doing something else.
3. Use multitasking to double your pleasure. Multitasking isn’t only for getting more things done. It can be an effective way to squeeze more joy and happiness into your life. My favorite multitasking question is “How can I make this better?” Fitness and exercise time can be a great place for multitasking. I often use my workouts as unplugged me-time that quiets my mind, but Saturdays will probably find me getting outdoors (which I love) for a run (exercise) and an uninterrupted chat with a friend.
Think about how you could add more of what you crave to other experiences. Can you make the tax preparation a bit more palatable my playing your favorite music? Will you have more fun doing that project you’ve been avoiding if you enlist a friend (with the promise that you’ll return the favor for her)?
4. Keep it food-free. Multitasking while you eat is one of those ideas that sounds a whole lot better than it really is. It seems like a no-brainer to eat lunch at your desk, and it can be SO tempting, but watch out—it also leads to overeating and weight gain. The science on this is very clear. When you eat in a focused and mindful way, you are likely to eat less and feel more satisfied than if you eat while you are distracted by something else. Do yourself a favor and use your lunchtime to take a break and just be present.
5. Avoid overuse injury. Multitasking does not lead to peak performance and it is most effective when it’s applied with thought and in limited quantities. When it comes to stress and overload, we all benefit from taking time to be 100 percent present and focus in a mindful way. This can be challenging in a technology-obsessed culture that encourages us to be plugged in and paying attention to many things at once most of the time.
A study on multitasking showed that people who multitask the most actually tend to be both overconfident of their multitasking abilities and less capable of multitasking than people who spend less time multitasking. Interestingly, it seems the best way to be an effective multitasker may be to make sure that you are also spending plenty of time slowing down, doing one thing at a time, and paying attention to how you feel, what you need, and how the multitasking is working for you.
Are you a multitasker? What works for you and where do you tend to get stuck?
Take good care,