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Slow Down Challenge: Multitasking is a Myth (Day 3)

This week, I’m joining Jeff Goins for his Slow Down Challenge. If you want to participate, sign up for the free Slow Down Challenge email list. Also, you might consider grabbing a copy of his book, The In-Between. Jeff is such an inspiration to me as a writer and I highly recommend reading all of his books, if you have a chance!

I’ve been reading The Myth of Multitasking recently. It’s a really simple read, but it’s been very thought-provoking.

I always thought I was a pretty good multitasker. Now I’m not so sure. You see, according to the book — and I’m beginning to be persuaded it’s true — there is no such thing as true multitasking.

Instead, the author makes the case that what we call “multitasking” is really just an inefficient way of switch-tasking. When we are trying to do two things at once, we’re really just switching back and forth between two different things — taking a much longer time to do both.

(The author does say that there’s such a thing as background tasking, where you are listening to music while cleaning, etc. But when it comes to tasks that require concentration, he makes a strong case that multitasking is a misnomer.)

Today’s project for the Slow Down Challenge was to focus completely on one task until it was finished. I chose the task of writing four handwritten cards that I’ve been meaning to write for two weeks. The project has been on my to-do list for two weeks and it was high time I finish it.

So I got the cards out, set the timer for 20 minutes, and jumped in. I did really well at focusing for 20 minutes, but I only had written 1 1/2 cards by then (yes, these were long handwritten notes — I had a lot I wanted to express in them!). I kept plodding along, but I realized that I had a lot of trouble staying completely on task after 20 minutes.

I finally finished up the cards at the 50-minute mark. And it felt really, really good to have them done, but I also realized that I need to work on my concentration more. Or, maybe just accept that I need to split my tasks up into 20-minute blocks since that seems to be about my maximum time-frame for working with focused intensity?

Confession time: I did stop one to briefly talk with Jesse and I also checked my email on my phone a few times. But I promise it was after the 20-minute mark. 🙂

By the way, if you missed Carrie’s post on time management from earlier today, you should go read it. Lots of great food for thought there on staying on task.

What project did you try to tackle and finish with full concentration today (read today’s challenge details here)? Tell us in the comments or blog about it and leave your link below.

 

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22 Comments

  • Shelly says:

    Great job on getting your cards written. I like to send hand written cards as often as I can, I think they are so nice.

    Today I worked on a couple of posts I needed to get done but have just been putting it off. Both of them were mostly done but for one I had to upload a video and I knew it was going to take a while, so I had been putting it off. But today was the day to get it done and I finished both of them.

    I forgot to turn off my alerts on my tablet and it kept chirping at me. But I held out until I was done with the task, even though it was so tempting to grab it and look. Next time I will turn it off.

  • sheena says:

    Oh this site is amazing.. 🙂

  • With the amount of stuff most of us have going on I think it’s hard for anyone to give 50 minutes of uninterrupted attention to one task :). I wouldnt beat myself up to bad. Thanks for the link up.

  • I had to get a lot done at work and I often enjoy listening to music while I work, but today I couldn’t. I’ve found that, even if I don’t feel like it’s distracting, it actually is. So I skipped the music and just focused in silence. It really helped.

  • Carrie says:

    Our modern culture is making it harder and harder to concentrate. We have so many distractions and we’re accustomed to instant gratification. It really goes take an exercise of self-discipline to go against this trend.

  • I’m reading this before I start writing a few articles today — but I promise I’ll focus and won’t check the internet again 🙂

  • Elizabeth says:

    LOL The funny thing is that I was going to write a post about the necessity of multi-tasking I think this is the final push that I might try and steal some time and jot down some notes today at work.
    Good job on focusing on your task! 🙂

  • I think it depends on what you are doing. There are plenty of things that can be going at the same time that can help you. For instance, I can have a load in the washer, a load in the dryer, a load in the dishwasher, a turkey in the oven, a pot of beans on the stove, and a pot of soup on the stove, and milk warming in the crockpot for yogurt, and then I can go and give my full concentration to something else during that time (editing photos, working on a sewing project, helping a child with school) because those other things are going take at least 40 minutes (laundry) or several hours (turkey–and I cook mine breast side down so I don’t even baste it; and the beans, too) without needing my attention. I might have to come stir the soup once in a while, but there is a lot of down time in between, so nothing is gained by just sitting around while it is cooking. I could stay in the kitchen and clean it, but I am still doing something else while all of those things are going.

    I really think laundry is the great multi-task item. I can put laundry in it at night and program it to wash and be done right before I get up, so that when I get up, that load can go straight in the dryer and another can go straight in the washer (we sort our clothes as we take them off into baskets in my closet; the children sort into those each morning and I do many loads each day). Then, while those two loads are going, I can do something else: read, write, go for a bicycle ride (something I did on Tuesday; when I came home the load was ready to go in the dryer).

    If I were to only do one thing at a time, I would not ever get food on the table or get the clothes clean. Yesterday afternoon my children decided to come out of their rooms during naptime and they woke up the baby just as I was getting her to sleep. I was unable to start bread, which we needed for dinner. I could not get her to sleep for 2 hours after that. Because of all that, I was delayed in making snacks, and in making the bread for dinner, and so we weren’t able to eat until 8:30.

    Just making dinner is a normal multi-tasking project. I have something cooking in several different pans and often in the oven too, plus I’m chopping, washing bowls, getting plates out and dishing them up, and directing children to set the table and pour water. I don’t think I would get more done by doing those things one at a time. If I did that we wouldn’t eat until midnight!

    If he’s saying don’t try to multitask while you’re working on a big project, I can see that, but for everyday homemaking, I think that won’t work. I also think that men tend to see one project at a time to completion–my husband and I have had this conversation before and he will finish one task until it is done and do nothing else, but I will be working on several things. Sometimes that helps, but not in everything; if I put my husband in the kitchen and have him make pizza, he cannot do all of the different tasks as fast as I can, because he does them all one at a time, and it takes him 2 hours to get done what I do in one for the exact same meal, because he doesn’t multitask. He also won’t have any laundry going during that time, and I’ll probably get one load washed while I’m working on that pizza.

    I think there are times when you need undivided attention for something, but I also think that not everything in life should be done just one task at a time.

    • Elizabeth says:

      I completely agree. Even with being at work there are just times (like now) where I can’t hurry or slow up aspects of what is going on but I can squeeze something else into that time frame to accomplish more than just the one item. It’s not so much stopping and starting but it’s treating time like tetris and trying to fill in the gaps.
      Now not saying I’d build a gazebo while reading a novel or two highly complex things like that.

      • Stephanie says:

        I like the idea of time tetris. I try to do the same thing and fill that downtime with stuff that can be picked up and put down without a loss of focus/quality of output.

    • Amanda says:

      I totally agree with you! Multi tasking as a home-schooling, homemaking mom is vital to survival!

    • WilliamB says:

      I think of it as being able to use my head for one thing and hands for another.

      But I can’t use my head for two things – I can’t read one thing and listen to another, not if I want to understand either; nor can I write something and talk about something else. But do dishes and listen to a story; or read and knit – these all work fine.

  • laura says:

    I love the Choose Joy card that you have in red in the picture, is this a card or is it more the size of a business card? I would love this as a print!
    I am a queen of multitasking, but I definitely realize that on some projects there is no multi-tasking or you make mistakes! Household chores, definitely multi-task. Working on 4 business accounts while on a business call, not a good time to multi-task. Take them one by one because you don’t want or need to make a business mistake!

  • skottydog says:

    Crystal,

    The timing of this post was perfect. I was about to comment here, then realized I needed to clean our bathroom. I resisted the urge to stay on the computer, and instead, I type this nearly 2 hours later, but mission accomplished! Bathroom (and kitchen floor) clean as a whistle!

    I am in the midst of reading a great book, by Rory Vaden, titled “Take The Stairs”. In it, he discusses 7 steps to achieving true success. Currently, I am reading the chapter entitled “Schedule”.

    Coincidentally, I read your post just before reading this from the book: “Instead of trying to do a lot of things equally at once for the sake of doing a little bit of everything, it is better to be selecting one or a few of the most critical priorities and effectively imbalancing your life in a direction of the most timely. Of course, what is timely and what is most important are constantly shuffling and changing according to each of the areas of our daily lives.”

  • I love this post! I have been working on not multitasking and using it to help my marriage this month on the blog for my Marriage and Relationship Goals link-up!

  • Lana says:

    I spent an hour this morning working on my budget ledger and checkbook without doing anything else. If I don’t give it my undivided attention then I can make mistakes.

    I know exactly what sort of multitasking you are referring to because it is my husband’s way of doing things and he has always been that way. I don’t believe we are talking about the kind of ‘multijobbing’ that homemakers do. I don’t consider having the tea kettle on to boil and loading the washer at the same time multitasking.

  • Beth says:

    A great thing I learned from The Frugal Girl’s blog is to combine a mind-task with a hand-task (for example, quizzing a kid on spelling words while you fold laundry, or like I do, grab a rag and wash fingerprints from doorframes, etc., while you talk on the phone). Don’t try to do two mind-tasks (ex. talk on the phone and read email) at the same time. If one is a non-thinking task, you can do something that requires thought at the same time.

  • Stephanie says:

    I wanted to read the time management post but the link isn’t working! 🙂

  • Ann says:

    There’s a whole method of time management, called The Pomodoro Technique, that is based on the idea of focusing on a task for 25 minutes, supposedly the optimum time, and then taking a 5-minute break. Thus your day (or a larger task) is broken up into 30 minute segments. I don’t think you need to be discouraged about your 20 minutes–with the Pomodoro method, you’d only have 5 more to go! 🙂 http://www.pomodorotechnique.com

  • Hi Crystal – this is my first visit! Great site here, and congrats on your accomplishment with getting those cards done!

    I love what you wrote here, I too am participating in Jeff’s slow down challenge – It looks like I am a bit behind you chronologically! http://jondharrison.com/2013/09/02/multitaskers-are-liars/

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