How many tabs do you have open right now?
How many projects are you in the middle of?
In today’s busy and fast-paced society, time management skills are essential. In an effort to accomplish more in a seemingly shorter amount of time, many people turn to multitasking.
However, analysts have found multi-tasking can actually be counterintuitive to productivity.
So, stop it.
Here are nine tips for breaking a multi-tasking habit and training yourself to focus on one thing at a time. You’ll likely notice that, contrary to popular belief, multi-tasking doesn’t actually help you accomplish more.
1. Strategically Mute Your Smartphone and Tablet Notifications
Most of today’s top smartphones and tablets connect to email accounts, so you’ll receive alerts about incoming messages. When you’re writing an email at the office, don’t let new messages distract you.
Temporarily mute your gadgets. If necessary, turn them face down so you won’t see visual notifications.
A study from London’s Institute of Psychiatry found multi-tasking with electronic media caused a short-term 10-point drop in IQ, which is similar to going without sleep for a night. When you force yourself to stay fully focused on the email you’re writing, the message will likely come across more clearly.
2. Be Selfish With Your Time
People are often pulled into multiple tasks unintentionally, because they didn’t stand their ground about finishing whatever they were working on. If co-workers’ requests make it nearly impossible to stop multi-tasking, set boundaries that support your single-tasking efforts.
Try something simple, such as “I’m spending the next 20 minutes editing these slides for the afternoon presentation, but I can help you with that as soon as I’m done.”
A similar statement makes it clear you won’t help immediately, but it sets an expectation of how and when a colleague can receive your assistance.
3. Compile Ineffective Thoughts and Come Back to Them Later
Your desire to multi-task at work may be related to the myriad of thoughts running through your brain constantly. Maybe you’re supposed to be writing copy for an advertisement, but you keep getting sidetracked by your thoughts about what to cook for dinner or an upcoming beach trip.
When your thoughts pull you away from your work, consider recording them on a notepad.
Return to your notes once you’re finished with your task.
If they’re not managed thoroughly and quickly, thoughts that pop into your head could cause you to start simultaneously working on another task at the same time you’re trying to finish your initial obligation.
4. Set a Timer to Train Your Brain
Research has shown it’s hard to stop multi-tasking because each time we check an item off our to-do lists, the brain secretes a feel-good chemical, which causes short-term happiness.
An audible cue that helps with focus could help you break the multi-tasking habit.
Set a timer for one hour, or even for 20 minutes if you’re an obsessive multi-tasker.
When the timer buzzes, stop what you’re doing and ask yourself, “What’s important now?” Over time, you’ll learn to focus your brain on what truly matters.
If you don’t control your multi-tasking madness, you’ll end up feeling burned out and may not want to go to work at all, let alone be productive.
5. Implement an Open-Door Policy
The act of conversing with a colleague for a few seconds to let them know you’re busy could cause you to lose focus. Announce an open-door policy to give co-workers a visual indicator of whether you’re engaged in something.
If your office door is open, people are free to come in.
If it’s closed, they should come back another time.
6. Use a Website-Blocking Browser Plugin
Statistics say, on average, people who do most of their work on computers lose focus every 10.5 minutes — probably because distractions are endless on the internet, and we all have our vices.
Maybe it’s hard for you to go a half hour without checking your Twitter feed, or you often daydream after looking at pinboards.
If you’re having trouble using self control to stop yourself from online diversions when you’re at work and should be focusing on something else, install a browser extension or plugin that blocks specified websites for a given amount of time.
StayFocusd, Block site, and Nanny are three popular options that are free to use for Chrome.
Some plugins include settings that allow you to restore access to blocked sites within certain hours, which could be good if you want to click over to YouTube and watch a few lighthearted clips during your lunch break.
There are also extensions to help you manage your email-checking obsession, so don’t forget to add those to your list to check out as well.
7. Close Unnecessary Browser Tabs
Browser tabs are multi-taskers’ best friends, because they allow people to pop between tasks with a quick click.
Create a new habit of only keeping browser tabs open if they relate to the single task you’re currently working on.
If closing the tabs for good seems like too big of a compromise, see if your browser can bookmark all open tabs. If not, try an extension like Linkclump or OneTab to do it for you.
If so, take advantage. The next time you click on the link representing the bookmarked tabs, they’ll all open at once and in the same order, as if you never closed them.
8. Make Actionable To-Do Lists Each Day
When you acquaint yourself with only doing one thing at a time, it might feel overwhelming if you don’t know what to focus on after finishing one task. You could easily spend too much time wrestling over the all-important question of “What do I do now?”
Ease some of the anxiety by making your to-do list for the coming day the evening before. It should be easier to focus on the things that take priority, so you can make continual progress.
Make sure your to-do items are straightforward and based on actions you can take, rather than vague reminders of what you need to accomplish.
For example, write “Finish outline for SITE blog post.”
A to-do entry that simply says “Blog post outline” is too ambiguous and doesn’t specify how much of the outline you need to finish.
9. Be Forgiving If You Get Off Track
If you’re a habitual multi-tasker, it’s not realistic to assume you’ll immediately be able to only focus on one thing at a time and won’t ever feel tempted to resort to your previous ways.
Slipping off track is inevitable, but your mindset is perhaps the one thing that determines whether you give up permanently or only temporarily.
Beating yourself up over a perceived failure won’t help — it will probably make you feel worse.
Instead, fully commit yourself to resuming the process of breaking your multitasking habit tomorrow.
If you succeed, you’ll accomplish more and feel less stressed.
What are your favorite tricks and tools to staying focused? Post a comment and share them here.
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