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Staying Present

Doing one thing at a time could boost your productivity, reduce your stress, and improve your work and life satisfaction. Here’s how to improve your focus and bring your whole self to every task.

Last year, while listening to the audiobook version of Andy Weir’s popular novel The Martian, I had a revelation that has profoundly impacted the way I work. No, it wasn’t related to science, survival, or space travel, but rather to the simple act of listening.

If you’ve read The Martian yourself, you’ll know it’s a long story. The audiobook is almost 11 hours long. I started out listening during my daily commute—but as I’m blessed with a short drive to work, I quickly realized that it was going to take me weeks to finish the recording. So I decided to pair listening with other low-key activities like cooking, washing dishes, shopping online, etc.

Did I proceed to blaze through the remainder of Weir’s captivating narrative? No. Instead, when I listened while working on chores or browsing the web—activities I’d previously thought of as “mindless”—I missed whole passages, lost the thread of the story, and constantly had to rewind.

That’s when it hit me—if I can’t really pay attention to a masterpiece of fiction while making a salad, what’s happening when I try to respond to IMs and emails during a technical meeting?

The answer, as you probably already know, is nothing good. According to research cited by the American Psychological Association, the time it takes your brain to switch continually between tasks can add up to as much as 40 percent of your productive time.

What does that mean in a professional setting? Let’s say you’re trying to listen to a speaker while simultaneously IMing with a colleague. If switching between the live presentation and the IM exchange is taking 40 percent of your time, you’re only spending about 60 percent of your time really engaged with either; if listening to the speaker is your primary task, you’re catching as little as 30 percent of the presentation.

Furthermore, multitasking leads to mistakes. Research indicates that switching to another task for as little as two or three seconds can double the number of errors made in the primary task. So even if you’re catching 30 percent of that presentation, you may not be interpreting any of the speaker’s points correctly.

When I finally recognized just how much presence and productivity I was losing by multitasking, I knew I needed to make an intentional change. Here are a few of the behaviors I’ve cultivated to ensure that I’m fully engaged and focused on the task at hand, whether that’s participating in a meeting, completing a project, or enjoying a dinner with family.

  • Lids down. I now close my laptop and silence my phone in all meetings, period, as well as during family dinners, movies, and other personal activities. I make an exception only if I’m using my laptop to take notes—in which case I dim the screen and clear other applications off my desktop.
    If this is as hard for you as it was for me at first, consider simply leaving your laptop in another room, and temporarily handing your phone off to a friend, family member, or colleague who can interrupt you only in the case of a true emergency.
  • Active engagement. Staying present is easier if you’re actively processing information. In meetings, I ask questions aloud or keep a running list on a notepad, and contribute relevant information as much as possible. Where I used to open my laptop and check out if a meeting didn’t feel effective, I now get involved in solving the problem, usually by suggesting a change in topic or an end to the meeting to make the most of everyone’s time.
    The same approach works in my personal life. When I’m spending time with a friend and notice myself reaching for my phone, I ask a question instead. If you find it hard to think of something to say aloud in those distracted moments, try prepping for dinner and coffee dates the same way you’d prep for a business meeting—make a list of questions to ask and topics to catch up on beforehand, so they’re fresh in your mind.
  • Written reminders. In many cases, my urge to multitask can be linked back to stress. I’m juggling multiple work responsibilities on top of a rich personal life, so when something that needs doing pops into my head, I worry I’ll forget if I don’t attend to it right away. Unchecked, multitasking and stress can form a vicious cycle—I want to multitask because I’m afraid I won’t accomplish everything, but multitasking lowers my productivity, which leads to even more stress and more desire to multitask.I’ve used written reminders for years to break the stress-multitasking cycle. I owe this technique to my high school teachers, who helped me embrace the adage “if you write it down, you don’t have to remember”. If I’m trying to focus on one task, but find myself fretting about something else, I quickly jot down the distracting thought and put it aside. Knowing I’ve written it down helps me calm my mind and assure myself that I will remember to get to it later.
    Over time, the paper lists I kept in school have been replaced by technology. I’m now using Trello, a project management app, to jot down notes on my phone, track deadlines, and celebrate my accomplishments. My current lists include:

    • Blog ideas
    • Things I need to do today
    • Activities, with due dates and owners, for each major project I’m working on
    • “Bright Ideas”—things I think about that I’d like to do someday, but that don’t fit in my schedule or otherwise aren’t feasible right now

If I’m still struggling to focus after writing something down, I review my lists and reassess my priorities. Is the new item important enough that it actually should distract me? If so, I turn my attention to that task instead. If not, I recommit myself to concentrating on the original activity.

  • Thoughtful task pairing. You may be wondering—why was I able to listen to The Martian while driving, a task that can (or at least should) demand considerably attention, but not while doing simple household chores?
    A 2015 study, described in Harvard Business Review, offers a clue. It turns out that when we’re called on to multitask, context and familiarity matter; if you performed two tasks simultaneously while learning them, you’ll have much better success than if you try to pair tasks that you’ve been trained to perform separately.
    In my case, I learned to drive with the radio playing much of the time, so listening to the spoken word while attending to the road isn’t too much of a stretch for me. On the other had, I don’t normally associate listening with cooking at all; as a result, my brain has a much harder time switching between those two tasks.
    What does this mean for you? If you must multitask, try to pair tasks consistently, and favor pairs that you’ve practiced for some time. For example, if you learned to knit while watching TV, but don’t normally knit while carrying on a conversation, set your needles aside until everyone agrees it’s time to put a movie on.

Finally, don’t get frustrated if focus doesn’t come easily at first, and don’t give up. Many experts believe that in our distraction-saturated world, “monotasking” is something that needs to be actively practiced.

The good news is that cutting back just a little on multitasking could dramatically increase your productivity, job satisfaction, and life balance—and getting there just takes a little dedication and a few intentional, strategic steps.

I hope the advice above helps you get started! If you try these tips and have feedback, or if you’d like to share some suggestions of your own, please comment below or email me.

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