Reading Time: 3 minutes

Ok, so I outlined steps one and two to managing email and Twitter, and I left you with a question about multi-tasking.  If you leave your email client open, Twitter feed, Facebook & LinkedIn pages constantly open on your desktop, you are forcing yourself to multi-task all the time.  The question posed yesterday was, “is multi-tasking good or bad?”  To answer that, we have to take a look at what multi-tasking really is:  It’s a myth.  In reality, human beings can only hold a very small number (maybe one!) of thoughts in our head at the same time.  So we’re not actually doing things simultaneously, we’re actually switching back and forth rapidly between those things.  It’s called  cognitive switching, and the ability to do it peaks around age 20.  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 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, and 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!

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. What’s the difference between Lance Armstrong & other cyclists or Michael Phelps & other swimmers?  They probably have more natural ability than others, but not all others.  The difference is the ability to focus.  Athletes winning competitions, surgeons performing successful surgeries, scientists making breakthroughs….None of these happen without being “in the zone.”  What’s “the zone?”  It’s focus.  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.  Which means 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 cognitive switching means that you are only giving at most 40% of your attention to the task at hand.  Some tasks only need 40% of your attention, or less.  I often catch up with friends over the phone while I do household chores like empty the dishwasher.  Chores require much less than 40% of my attention, so my friends are getting the bulk of my attention (which might be more than they are giving me! =)

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?  Does your family deserve more than 40% of your attention?

Let me be clear:  I’m not telling you never to multi-task.  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.  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.  This is not news to you.  I’m sure you do it when you have something really, really important to do, right?  Well, does that happen often?  And if not, does that mean that the bulk of the things you spend your life doing, aren’t really that important?  Or is just that you never get to the important stuff because you’re too busy splitting your time between unimportant things, because it feels more productive?

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.

You may also be interested in: