There’s a constant pull among those I know to do more. Whether this anxiety is due to outside pressure, comparing yourself to your peers, or simply an ambitious drive to make your mark, this longing is felt across disciplines and demographics.
One of the most common ways of addressing this is a desire to multitask. Multitasking permeates across Western culture. It comes from this sense of wanting to do more, or at least wanting to do what you set out to do: be it your creative aspirations or your shopping list.
We in the West feel a sense of time that is almost omnipresent. We’re constantly aware of the limited time we’ve got over the course of a day, a week, and even over our lifetime, so we try and utilize it to the best of our abilities. This often means trying to squeeze more into a smaller timeframe, rather than truly keeping track of what we’re doing and monitoring time ill spent. (though this is important too, perhaps even more so, and the topic of a future essay)
This leads to multitasking; trying to fit multiple activities or focuses into a limited space of your attention and concentration.
Our culture obsesses over multitasking. Often you hear stories of how people read while on treadmills, listen to music while cooking, watch TV while eating. Or even more mundane, how often are you texting or checking email or browsing Twitter in line for your coffee? (I’m most guilty of this one)
I used to try and multitask, from small activities to big ones, even just reading multiple books at the same time. Maybe these work great for you, but I’ve found that multitasking is a poor use of my time.
With a limited attention span and concentration, when I try to do multiple things at once, inevitably something gets less attention. Something is neglected, simply in the process of maintaining the juggling act.
Part of the mindfulness practice I’ve been working on lately (and evangelizing on this blog and Twitter) is trying to work on focusing at one thing at a time. This has been tremendously helpful for my work and my sense of being. It’s liberating to focus wholly on one task at once, see it to completion, and move on when ready. Even if it isn't something that can be completed in a sitting, it's empowering to see progress before moving on. Be aware of the transition; that’s important too.
That’s not to say this is always to be avoided. As I write this post, I’m listening to music, as I always do. But even this simple activity has shifted as I became more aware of my process and own mind.
There are times where my attention shifts to the music, and I find myself staring off into the sun-soaked tree across the street from the second floor coffeeshop I’m in. I watch the wind play in the leaves, listen to the words or melody, and as I notice myself having drifted, gently draw myself back to the screen in front of me.
In the teachings of Andy Puddicombe, the man behind the Headspace app, he says something to the effect of, “You’re not trying to stop your thoughts, but simply to notice when your mind has wandered and bring it back to the task at hand.” (Paraphrased)
This has been very helpful not only in the practice of meditation, but in my daily life as well. I try to focus my attention on the smallest number of tasks at once, be it writing, cooking, biking, reading, or simply pausing to experience it all.
I realize this may seem obvious, or otherwise opaque, so here are a few tips:
- Be clear with what you hope to accomplish.
This is an important step that gets often overlooked. If you haven't resolved to sit and write, then it isn't a problem to go wash the dishes. One of the best ways to minimize distraction is to decide what you want to do. Sometimes, during particularly busy weeks, I'll write a few (3-5) goals on a notecard the night before. That way, I can always have a physical reminder what I wanted to do was.
- Allow yourself the time to complete this task.
If you want to do something, but haven't budgeted your time appropriately to allow for this, you've stacked the deck against yourself. There's few things more frustrating to me when I want to be productive, am in the right mindset, and find my time cut short because I forgot about another commitment. Now, if you get interrupted, of course that's not entirely in your control, but it's something to be mindful of as well.
- Break time into more manageable blocks.
Sitting and working on one thing at a time for an hour straight sounds daunting if this sort of concentrated practice isn't your norm. Even just setting aside 10 minutes to meditate sounds like a lot if you're not familiar with it. You have to work up to those lengths. When I was getting started with concentrated productivity, I started with the Pomodoro Technique. In short: work on one thing for 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break, and then go back to it. It's a great way to get started, but you may find you outgrow the intervals, or they don't suit you at all.
- Log your successes, and short comings.
I work well with streaks. I hesitate to break streaks, and like knowing how well I'm doing in my practices. I find it's really important to log when you completed your goals, and to mark when you miss them. Even if you didn't hit them, it's good to be honest with yourself so you can adjust later. Maybe you tried to do too much in a shorter period of time, or didn't fully understand the task in front of you. Logging this helps to make sure next time, you'll get it.
Try it, if only a few times a day. Pick something small, like washing the dishes, or making your bed, and do nothing but that. See how it makes your feel. With the barrage of stimulus omnipresent in our lives, there’s nothing more freeing than to let it all pass and to focus.