It seems everyone is so proud of their multi-tasking skills. Many employment ads list multi-tasking as a necessary or preferable skill. Most of us have tried to multi-task at some point in our lives. We are probably doing it right now. How many programs do you have running on your computer right now? How many projects are you working on today?
I’ve tried it plenty of times myself. I have 5 projects going on, 3 emails opened at once, and 4 files sitting on my desk to go through. I have a list of “to-do” items sitting right in front of me and another one on the computer.
The problem is that we spend so much time on our distractions that we never actually get any of them done. Well we get them done, but we rush through things and are frustrated while doing it. All of us who have jobs are pretty smart and able to handle time management. Why is it that we are all struggling to stay focused on our work?
For example, I just spent 5 minutes checking email. Then I had to click over to check my comments on my last post. I just completely lost focus because I’m trying to multi-task.
I’ve realized that multi-tasking just doesn’t work for me. It probably doesn’t work for most of us. We spend more time organizing our thoughts and writing down “to-do” lists than we do working. This is frustrating, but it doesn’t have to be.
I propose we stop all multi-tasking. Let’s start focusing on our work. Let’s start “single-tasking”.
My simple guide to never multi-task again:
1. Clear your desk – Single-tasking starts tomorrow, but before you leave tonight, clear your desk. Throw everything away that you don’t need. File everything else. Clear out all of the extra supplies too. Put them back in the store room. Make sure the only things on your desk are the bare essentials.
De-clutter your cube walls too. Leave up any decorative things. I’m talking about all the meeting notes and lists that you never actually use. File or toss them.
Get two pads of paper. One is an 8.5 x 11 note pad and the other a small 5 x 8 pad for notes.
Go home and relax knowing that tomorrow will be a less stressful day.
2. One “to-do” list – Tomorrow when you come in, get out the smaller notebook. Write down everything you need to do for the day. You just need a few words summary, nothing crazy.
Now pick one thing off of the list. I like to start with something that won’t take very long since I’m usually sleepy in the morning unless I have something that is a priority. If I have a time limit on something, I’ll get to that first. Write that thing down on the top page of the bigger pad. Put the “to-do” list away in a drawer.
3. Check your emails – Check everything that might distract you. Any emails, your rss reader, your mail inbox, anything. Make sure that there are no distractions left waiting for you. Add anything important to your “to-do” list and put it back in the drawer.
4. One program at a time – Now that you’ve checked everything, close your email, put away your phone, and get to work. Work only on the task you wrote down on the big pad of paper. Use that for notes. Use only one program on your computer (or more if the task calls for it).
The idea here is to completely focus on that one task. It may take you hours or just a few minutes. It doesn’t matter what it is, but you can’t do anything else till you finish the task. If you find that it’s too long, break the task into smaller items and put them on your list.
When you’re done, put everything back to where it needs to go. File any papers, send off any emails, talk to your boss, save the spreadsheet, whatever you need to do, make sure there is no trace of that task on your desk. Then cross that off of your list and repeat for the next thing.
5. Manage distractions – Most of us don’t have it this easy though. Somebody calls us. Our boss stops by with more work. Whatever it is, just stop what you’re doing and talk to the person. If it’s more work, add the item to your “to-do” list. If it’s just to chat, that’s fine too since we want to be social.
Once the distraction is gone continue with your work. If the distraction became the priority, make a note about where you were on the other task, put everything away, and start on the more important task.
6. Keep things minimal – Throughout the day, try to keep everything you can off of your desk and out of sight. The more you see, the more you lose focus. Keep your cell phone in your bag. Don’t open the internet browser or email. Don’t try to work on two projects at once. Keep it simple and focus on the one thing you’re working on.
7. End your day – Most people just work up until the end of the day and head out leaving a mess on their desk and a mind full of clutter. Take some time at the end of the day to put everything away. Tear off all of the used sheets of paper in your big notebook. File the ones you need and toss the ones you don’t.
Tear off your “to-do” list from your small notebook. Start a new one for tomorrow. First put anything that you didn’t get done today. Then anything else you need to do.
Throw away any garbage, put your pens away, clean your coffee mug, and push in your chair when you leave. By doing this, every day you come into a clean space and every night you clear your desk and mind.
By doing this, I’ve found that I feel more refreshed when I leave the office and can start my day with a clearer head. I find that I get work done faster and make fewer mistakes. I also get less stressed out when a distraction comes up. I never have a problem with deadlines.
The whole idea behind this blog is that we need to spend less time fretting about our cubicle lifestyle and more time enjoying the things we want to do. Stop multi-tasking, start focusing, get your work done and maybe you can even go home early.