We are the change

Is multi-tasking multiplying your stress levels? how to increase productivity one step at a time

Some days seem to pass in a busy whirl, but at 5pm you’ve got no idea what you’ve achieved and you can’t really cross anything off your task list. In fact, weeks can pass and you’re still pretty much looking at the same old to-do list.

The idea that multi-tasking is good for productivity is a myth – in fact the reverse is true.

Women are supposedly good at multitasking – but maybe that is because often we’re left with no choice.

Modern pressures of business and family, plus any fun you manage to squeeze in, can leave you feeling that JUST eating a sandwich is a waste of time. It only takes one hand, right? That leaves another free for emails, ironing, filing…

You may even be feeling pleased with yourself when you’re doing it. “I am superwoman!” you declare, as you simultaneously pack a lunchbox, schedule a meeting and proofread a report due that day.

But these kinds of activities actually deplete our superpowers. There is no such thing as multi-tasking – what we’re doing is task-switching.

One thing at a time

The human brain works in a linear way, on one thing at once. Women aren’t especially good at focusing on a few things at the same time – we’re just better at switching from one thing to another. And the extra concentration it takes to re-adjust the mind to a new task every few minutes takes a toll on productivity.

Furthermore, when we believe we’re improving at multi-tasking, what we’re actually doing is developing a habit – and that means it’s difficult to stop. How easy do you find it to sit down and focus on a good book, really engage in a conversation with a loved one, or relax and just ‘be’?

As our ability to focus becomes weaker and the pace of our life becomes more and more frantic and varied, the quality of our work will suffer and we’ll be making more slip-ups.

It’s better to find a way to slow down and give the same attention and respect to each task as you give when talking with an important client.

From distraction to focus

Try these steps:

1. Accept you’re human and work with your brain, not against it

Ditching the multi-tasking habit is about retraining yourself, and being aware of the urge to flick to your emails in the middle of something important. Schedule yourself sensibly and work ahead of deadline – nothing is worse for stress and poor productivity than rushing your work while kicking yourself for not starting it sooner!

2. Take control of your workload

Analyse your to-do list and assess what is important and what isn’t. I love these four classifications:

  • Urgent and important – do it
  • Non-urgent and important – date it
  • Urgent and non-important – delegate it
  • Non-urgent and non-important – dump it!

Re-organise your list at the end of each day – this gives you the freedom to forget it overnight.

3. Pay attention to each task exclusively

Take an item in your ‘do it’ list. Close down your email. Put the phone on silent. Close the door. Give yourself a reasonable time limit.

Focus on who will benefit from the work – you, your clients or one particular client – and how you’re helping them right now. Close your eyes and make a commitment to give that person your best work.

You’ll flow more easily, enjoy your work and, you never know, you might just finish something!

4. Work to a daily rhythm

Get to know yourself at your best, at your most concentrated, at your most productive and at your most tired. Are you an owl or a night bird? Do you slump after lunch? Do you need an extra hour in bed now and again? Use this to decide what parts of the day are best for cloistered creative time, responding to emails, meetings and phone calls and aim to arrange your day accordingly.

5. Organise your switching

Sometimes multi-tasking is the only way to go. An hour’s frenzied activity of phone calls, emails and fast organisation is fine – just be aware you’re doing it, and don’t let it go on all day. It may help to ‘bundle’ certain tasks together – clearing emails and creating your task list go hand in hand, or do your filing along with the bookkeeping.

6. If a job’s worth doing, it deserves your time.

When you’re in discussion with a client you’re respectful, courteous and attentive. Your work deserves the same respect. Whether you’re working for your own business or on a piece of client work, make the current task your priority and don’t let anyone else’s urgency become yours without good reason.

About the Author: Catherine Lee is a business blogger and founder of Kaleidoscope Virtual Assistant Services.  She has more than 20 years’ experience in office management and Personal Assistant Services, and is now an indispensable right-hand woman to executives working all over the country. Catherine is also on a mission to inspire women to make careers as self-employed Virtual Assistants, and to encourage Virtual Assistants to remember they are giving essential, professional business services and to know their own worth.

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  1. Alison says

    This is me at the moment.
    I was perfectly okay (an had the superwoman complex of ‘yes, I can do anything!’), now the slightest hic-up an I feel lost, nine months of multi-tasking several different projects with different people has definately taken it’s toll.
    I’m so used to working alone, working with others is both rewarding and stressful when you have bad week and feel like your letting everyone down.
    It’s difficult to let your brain relax when you have so much to do and I think that is the worst thing, when you start feeling guilty for taking a break. Trouble is, if you don’t you just end up doing bad work anyways.

  2. Tracey says

    Excellent article Catherine – thank you! I think women often feel the pressure (whether from themselves or others) to be Super Woman – no thanks, been there, tried to do that, burned out 🙂

    I’d seen the list of urgent vs. important etc. before – but just love the actions you’ve put next to each one – a good new perspective for me…
    * Urgent and important – do it
    * Non-urgent and important – date it
    * Urgent and non-important – delegate it
    * Non-urgent and non-important – dump it!

    So now I’m going to close my email & concentrate on doing a website quote – without interruptions or task-switching!