For a long time, I believed that there is no such thing as multi-tasking. In my experience, most times the effort to multitask results in many half-completed tasks, than one task done well. What was supposed to be more productive, turns out to be less when multitasking. Here I describe how meditation helped me multitask more effectively.
We are always unconsciously multitasking. As we breathe, our hearts beat at the same time as walking down the road, possibly even thinking about a problem. We are also perfectly comfortable eating or drinking our coffee while having a conversation with a friend.
To Multitask – myth or fact?
So why exactly is it possible to talk on the phone to a loved one on your daily commute, while finding even the sound of the phone ringing distracting when we’re navigating unknown territory? And how can we become more effective when we multitask? Or can we?
These are the questions I’ve been contemplating for the past few weeks, after again observing how leaders so often struggle with not having enough time to do everything that they believe they need to do.
It occurred to me that the root cause of the problem is neither time nor too much to do. The problem is much more deeply rooted in a fear of letting go of control, not having a clear vision or being unable to focus. Or all of the above.
The more you do, the harder it is to let go. As what we see becomes more complex, the more blurry your vision. The more tasks to do, the more difficult it will be to focus and complete only one.
Multitasking seems to be an ineffective solution to the problem.
Multitasking is only an effective solution when it involves fully mastered tasks. Two or more tasks you don’t have to actively think about or analyze. The problem is, that most tasks, unfortunately, need active thinking, at least at some point.
To effectively multitask, you need to first increase focus on the task you are busy with, while you are busy with it. But, if the problem is trying to be more productive, what would be a more effective solution?
The myth debunked
My most productive days are days that I do the opposite of multitasking. I meditate. Meditation helps me to slow down my busy mind and gain clarity on what I want to achieve, and how best to do it. My most productive days turn out to be not the ones that I do the most work, but the ones that I do the most important work well. This is when I realised meditation helped me to multitask. After I’ve meditated, I’m able to get more done, with less effort and resources.
However, you don’t need to learn how to meditate to gain the benefits of it. You simply need to improve the following three skills:
1. Define clear priorities
Without a clear list of priorities, you’ll find yourself jumping from one task to the next. Only to spend the entire day switching tasks, not actually completing anything. Or spend the whole day on the wrong task.
Busy is the opposite of productive.
At the start of each meditation, I set an intention in the form of a question. Over the years I’ve learned that it is better to focus on one specific question than to try to make sense of five.
Similarly, it is more productive to focus on one task and complete it fully, than to try to juggle between five.
In agile software development, there is a concept of having a central backlog, which is a single, prioritized list of to-dos for the organization.
At the start of an agile transition, it is common for the business to respond that more than one task is equally important. A simple, yet effective technique to help decide which tasks are more important and balance different stakeholder needs, is explained in an article by Samantha Laing.
It consists of a grid with time on the one axis, and who the task helps most on the other. Once you’ve organized the tasks into the four quadrants, prioritizing is much easier. It makes it even easier by deciding upfront how many tasks each quadrant can add to the list.
To optimize productivity, limit multitasking by selecting only the top priority item from the list, and focusing all your attention on it before pulling the next one.
Having a prioritized list of items, however, is not enough, just like making a new year’s resolution doesn’t mean that you’ll follow through. You also need commitment.
Once you pick what you deem to be the most important task, you need to commit, implying that you’ll finish it, whatever it takes.
A lot of times when I sit down to meditate, halfway through my meditation, I start feeling uncomfortable. Each time when I sit down to meditate, I commit to completing my 20 minutes of focused silence. Nothing is more important for these few minutes.
Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it’s harder, with my mind reminding me of everything that needs to get done, the fear that there’s not enough time in the day trying to stop me from finding stillness. Other times difficult emotions, like anger or hurt, come up to the surface of my consciousness. It’s hard to sit with these emotions. My commitment to myself is the only thing that keeps me from getting up.
Commitment is a decision, however, that only you can make.
If you are not the one choosing the task but are simply told by your manager to do it, there is no or little commitment. Without commitment, there is an incrementally higher chance that you will abort it when it gets too difficult or boring.
If, however, you are committed to completing a task, you’ll focus your attention on finishing it well, enabling you to move on to the next one sooner.
Commitment might keep you going, but discipline will make sure you stay focused on your goal. The more focused you are, the faster you will complete the task, and the faster you will be able to move on.
Discipline is saying no to temptation and distraction. It’s slowly persevering, like the tortoise in the story of the tortoise and the hare.
Meditating in a quiet place with no distractions is relatively easy. But unless you are a monk living in the mountains on your own, the reality is that life is filled with distractions. Traffic. Noisy neighbours. Television. Mobile phones. Even when you sit alone in nature there are flying insects, chirping birds, and rustling leaves.
Waiting for no distractions are futile. You have to embrace the noise.
Noise is part of life, so don’t try to exclude it from your meditation, or from your daily work. Rather practice non-attachment to it. Accept the noise, and find ways to still your mind regardless. A practising yogi realizes that thought is the nature of the mind, and he doesn’t try to stop thought, he merely learns to let go of these thoughts and returns to the meditation as soon as he becomes aware of the distraction. With time and practice, it becomes easier to focus your mind, but it remains a practice.
When being distracted at work, accept it as part of life, but choose to turn your attention back to what you were busy with. Have a notebook handy and write down what you need to remember or do, and continue with your task. Once the task is complete, go back to your notepad, where everything is safely written down until you have the time to dedicate to it.
The biggest complaint I keep hearing is how people don’t have enough time. Yet, when I observe them, I notice how the time that they do have are spent ineffectively. Often the wrong task is worked on, or it’s not clear what needs to be done. This is where meditation helped me multitask more efficiently and it can you too.
To be an effective multitasker, you need to learn to clarify your vision. Then you must prioritize what needs to be done, and focus with commitment until it is completed.
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With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.