Podcast 131: How to avoid multitasking

This is podcast 131: how to avoid multitasking. By now you’ve heard, if not from me, then from many others, that multitasking is a bad idea. That’s true. It’s not effective. It makes your work take longer, you’ll make more mistakes and it increases your chances of not finishing the main thing you need to do because you’ve gone down so many rabbit holes.

I’ve also written that there are situations where multitasking can be helpful, such as when you don’t have a time crunch to finish something and being able to spread your attention around makes it easier for you to get some work done on it. You’ll go slower, but it’s better to get something done than nothing, as I talked about in the previous podcast.

For those of you who want more ideas on how to avoid it, or stop it in its tracks, here you go. I work at home most of the time and this first tip may not work for you otherwise. I talk to myself. I narrate what I’m doing. I’ll say, okay, I’m going to write the intro for the podcast. As I write, I realize I want to look something up online to quote in the podcast, so I tell myself I’m doing that. If I see other tabs still open when I go online, I tell myself I’ll look at them later.

I believe this works because our minds kind of encourage us to multitask by constantly throwing new thoughts and ideas in our paths. But we can truly only focus on one thing at a time. Hint: this is why multitasking actually doesn’t even exist, much less work. When you talk to yourself, your words come out of your mouth one after the other in a single coherent stream, ideally. It’s not like in your head where words and ideas can be jumbled together. You verbalize one thought at a time. This makes your current task you’re telling yourself about stand out from all the others rattling around in your brain.

Another method I use is a checklist. A listener asked me to do an episode about multitasking and she gave the example of all the little tasks she needs to create an Instagram post. I have a checklist to do this podcast. I’ve been doing it for a few years now, so I know the ropes. I know every little thing I need to get done to create, record, post and promote my podcast. So, why a checklist?

Back in January of 2017 I did a whole episode about the power of checklists. A surgeon even wrote an entire book about how incredibly important checklists are. He notes that in a busy hospital where life or death situations are common, it’s incredibly easy to have one’s attention diverted and make even the smartest doctor forget to perform a critical routine task. In my case and my listener’s, we’re likely to get our attention scrambled by calls, messages, emails and shiny squirrels that pop up online.

But if we know we have a checklist to consult, we’re less likely to succumb to distraction. Sometimes I use both techniques at once when I complete a step and then tell myself, okay, onto step four!

The other problem checklists address is complexity. Even if you know how to do a job and it doesn’t seem that hard, it may still have many moving parts and if for some reason you omit a step, the end result will be unsatisfactory or even fail.

Complexity also includes change. I’ve changed things I do regarding my podcast over time and my checklist reminds me of those changes so I don’t have to rely on remembering them.

I want to be consistent in the way I do things; that’s important for my business. It would feel stressful to have to remember every tiny thing and do it the same way in the same order each time. The checklist relieves me of that. As soon as I complete item number 1, I go back to my list and see what item number 2 is. There’s no downtime for me to wonder what’s next and leave space for distraction to come in.

My third tip is to use an alarm or some other interrupter that reminds you to check whether what you’re doing right then is the right thing to do. If the alarm finds you doing the work you intended to spend that time on, then you’re good. If it finds you down a rabbit hole, then you can haul yourself back out of it.

An alarm can help you keep track of how often you are getting distracted, percentage-wise, and see if you need to do more to prevent that. If you make notes about what you’re doing when the alarm sounds, you can also get a picture of how your entire day is spent and either pat yourself on the back or comb through my previous podcast episodes for help.

What you can do right now: try one or all of these methods of avoiding multitasking. Talk yourself through the steps of your project. Refer to your checklist to keep your project on track. Use an alarm to confirm that you’re spending your time the way you intended. Try all three or mix and match!