The NYTimes Backs Me Up on Multitasking

October 24th, 2008

On the heels of my last post comes this article in the New York Times on how hard it is to effectively multitask.

Shortcuts – Multitasking Can Make You Lose … Um … Focus –

My favorite line describes the infamous “email voice”, when it is clear that the person on the other end of the phone line is actually focusing on his/her email.

Based on my own experience, the article is also dead-on when it says multitasking actually adds low levels of panic and stress.  I certainly feel much more in control when I slow down and try to do only one thing at a time.

Now what was I doing before that article caught my attention?

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On Personal Productivity

October 21st, 2008

When I started practicing law 10 years ago, there were only three major tasks I needed to accomplish in my daily work.  Staying abreast of the law, advising clients appropriately and preparing top-notch documents were the full scope of my legal world.  It was relatively easy then to find solid blocks of time to devote to meaty projects.

Things got more complicated when I started my own business and had to go out and hunt for work, bring it home and do it.  I have found it much harder to find those uninterrupted spans of time that are often needed to really think through projects- never mind putting the thoughts to paper.

I have made a study of my personal productivity lately.  What I have realized is that multi-tasking works fine some of the time, but that I need to create “spaces” for mono-tasking (uni-tasking?) as well.  Here is what works for me:

1)  Check email in the morning, then shut it down until lunchtime.  Do the same thing around noon, then close it again for a solid block of the afternoon.  Email is the attention-killer.  It just keeps coming and most of it does not require immediate response.  (Note: if you need to get in touch with me urgently, call).  The same thing goes for Twitter, my RSS feeds, etc.  I check them at a couple of intervals through the day, then leave them alone in between.

2)  Plan my day.  This is hard because my routine is not fixed, but the basic idea is to make a list every day of what I need to accomplish and *when* to do it.  That way at any given moment I know exactly what I need to do most.

3)  Do one thing at a time. Brad Feld posted a quote from an old book that says “There is time enough for everything in the course of a day if we do but one thing at a time, but there is not time enough in a year if we try to do two things at a time“.  It’s really true.  I work through things much more quickly if I remember to start one task and see to completion rather than doing a little of one thing, jumping to another and then back to the first.

4)  When it’s time to get out of the office, get out of the office.  When I first started my business I felt compelled to stay in the office even during slow periods.  It is unproductive and bad for my morale.  Now I tell myself every day to do all the work I have for the day, make phone calls, meet the people I need to meet, and when it is done go do something else.  Down time is for surprise visits to my kids’ schools or getting some extra exercise, not for stewing at my desk.

The corollary to this is that when there is only a half-day of work to do, do it!  Don’t drag it out all day, but get it done so there is time left for something else.

As I re-read this I realize it can all be condensed to one simple rule: figure out what I need to be doing at that moment, do it and move on.

That’s the idea, at least.  It’s hard to do every day, but it sure makes me feel better when I try.