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Ok, so in the last two posts, I outlined steps one and two to managing email and Twitter, and I left you with a question about multitasking. So we covered controlling the information and controlling the technology. Let’s talk about controlling your habits and your behavior. Because that’s the hardest part. If you leave your email client, Twitter feed, Facebook & LinkedIn pages constantly open on your desktop, you are forcing yourself to multitask all the time. The question posed yesterday was, “is multitasking good or bad?” To answer that, we have to take a look at what it really is: multitasking is a myth.

In reality, human beings can only hold a very small number (maybe one!) of thoughts in our head at the same time. We’re not actually able to do things simultaneously. What we’re doing when we think we are multitasking is switching back and forth rapidly between things. It’s called cognitive switching. And it comes with a high price tag.

When switching between two tasks, you are probably giving at most 40% of your attention to each of those tasks, and the other 20% at least, is required for the switching. Study after study has shown that cognitive switching both lengthens the time it takes to complete a task, and decreases the quality or accuracy of the output. I read a study recently that determined that driver inattention is the cause of 80 percent of all car crashes. The most common distraction is use of cell phones. And guess what? The numbers are the same whether the person was dialing, talking, or listening!

What’s the difference between Michael Phelps & many other swimmers? Sure, he may have more natural ability than many others, but not all others. The difference is his ability to focus. Athletes winning competitions, surgeons performing successful surgeries, scientists making breakthroughs….None of these happen without being extremely focused, or “in the zone.

So the question becomes, “how can you learn to focus better, so that you are better at the things you do?”

When you are working on important tasks, you will perform better if they are receiving 100% of your attention, not 40%. Which means being in control of your behavior and having the willpower to close your email, Twitter feeds, Facebook, etc. And the only way you will be convinced to do this, is if you value the benefits of focus.

Remember that multi-tasking is a myth. Remember that cognitive switching means that you are only giving at most 40% of your attention to the each of tasks you are switching between.

Some tasks may only need 40% of your attention, or less. I often listen to books while I do household chores, like emptying the dishwasher. But does the work you perform for your clients deserve more than 40% of your attention? Does driving deserve more than 40% of your attention, when it could mean the difference in life or death, for you or someone else? Do your family and friends deserve more than 40% of your attention?

Let me be clear:  I’m not telling you never to ‘multitask.’ I’m just suggesting that you be more selective, and more thoughtful, about when you do it, rather than having that be your default method of operating. If your email (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc) is always open and always downloading, then nothing ever gets 100% of your attention.

Remember that multitasking is a myth and that cognitive switching comes with a high price tag. Make sure there are times that you can devote to doing nothing but tackling the things on your to-do list, and when those important things come up, give them all of your attention.

We’ve talked about 3 steps so far, control over information, control over technology, and control over your behavior.  Come back tomorrow and  we’ll discuss the 4th step.