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Okay, so we know we said we’d talk about multitasking right now, but we have a confession to make: multitasking actually doesn’t work. “The brain wasn't designed to multitask,” says Margaret Moore, founder and CEO of WellCoaches.com, and co-author of Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life. “We can only focus our attention well on one thing at a time.” Sure, we can all breath and walk at the same time, but if you try to write a couple of work emails while in deep conversation with your significant other on the phone, your significant other may grow ever louder and more annoyed.
That’s why instead of trying to multitask, we’ll give you tips and tricks on how to focus more effectively. To be clear, focusing is about prioritization and sticking to a single objective. The better you’re able to focus, the better (and faster) you’ll be able to complete projects, big and small. Unfortunately, focus has a pesky enemy: it’s called procrastination. Luckily, we’ve come up with some tips to both combat procrastination, and improve your focus.
We live in one of the most mentally stimulating periods of human history. With so much access to ... well, everything (thank you Internet), can people really be blamed for being distracted? No, but we can put in place measures to limit distractions. They can include:
-- Block Facebook (and other addictive sites). If you need to hunker down and focus on a project, consider giving your social media passwords to a trusted friend or family member, and have them change the passwords to lock you out until after you score your A+.
-- Block the internet. For some of us, social media is not the only thing online that sucks up our time. For everything else, consider installing a browser plugin called LeechBlock. This ultra customizable plugin allows you to set the amount of time you allow yourself to visit a specific list of sites. Once you pass the allotted time you’ve set, LeechBlock will automatically disable your access to that site.
-- Control your environment. Sometimes our homes offer too many distractions. If this is the case, consider working outside at a library, coffee shop, or park. Push in your earplugs (or earphones if you like music while you work) and let your fingers rip across your laptop keyboard.
-- Taking a vacation from your friends. For the outgoing types out there, your usual vice is people and connecting with them. But if you need to complete a project that’s worth 60 percent of your grade, politely ask your friends to not contact you until after you’re done.
Batching (the secret of efficiency)
Batching is the process of compiling all your most repetitive and tedious tasks and doing them all in one go, thereby minimizing the set up cost and time involved, and avoiding constant interruptions to your focus. This is a technique used throughout industry, but can be used in your personal life.
For example, instead of doing your laundry or dishes everyday, wait for them to pile up and do them all in one go (once or twice a week). Instead of spreading your research out over the course of a week, batch it down to a day or two to avoid having to re-familiarize yourself with the previous day’s research progress. Instead of checking and answering your emails every five minutes, aim to do it only three times per day. At work, instead of spreading your calls throughout the week, batch them all into one day to free the rest of your week for more pressing matters.
The time saving opportunities are endless. By finding those tasks in your life that can be batched, you replace a regular distraction with a single, focused period of time to accomplish the tasks.
Vilfredo Pareto, a little known economist who was recently popularized in Timothy Ferriss’ bestselling book, The 4-Hour Workweek, developed a theory called Pareto’s Law — today it’s commonly referred to at the 80/20 principle. Originally, this law demonstrated the predictable distribution of wealth in society — that 80 percent of the wealth and income was produced and possessed by 20 percent of the population. The trick is that this principle not only holds true in economics, but every aspect of life.
Take a look at your life and ask yourself, “Which 20 percent of sources are causing 80 percent of my workload or taking up 80 percent of my time?” Be thorough. It can be a toxic relationship with a friend/colleague/significant other; a hostile business client; a commute, a style of work; a membership (maybe you are a part of too many clubs or associations); an activity, etc. Find those sources that are eating up too much of your time and focus, figure out whether they are really essential to keep in your life, then focus on better managing, minimizing, or eliminating those sources from your life.
“Set realistic daily and weekly goals (not your activities) that specifically include the quantity, quality and the pace of the goal,” advises Dr. Kevin D. Gazzara, senior partner at Magna Leadership Solutions LLC. “(This way) you get positive and timely reinforcement of you accomplishments.” Too many people try to accomplish ten or twenty things in a single day, then (surprisingly) they get discouraged when they only completed a handful of the items on their list. Sounds familiar? It should. It’s called trying to multitask. Again, it doesn’t work! Instead, focus on accomplishing one or two big goals per day. You’ll be amazed at the difference this makes.
The essence of procrastination is putting things off until a “more convenient” time, or to the last minute before they’re due. Steve Levinson, a clinical psychologist and co-author of the book Following Through: A Revolutionary New Model for Finishing Whatever You Start, has some insight into this experience. “Procrastinators and non-procrastinators alike only do what they've decided they should when they actually feel like they must do it. The only difference between procrastinators and non-procrastinators is that it takes procrastinators a lot longer to feel like they must do it. In other words, they wait until ‘the last minute.’ That's why I believe that a key to overcoming procrastination is to learn how to deliberately make ‘the last minute’ come sooner.”
To conquer procrastination, Levinson suggests creating artificial deadlines that force you to take action now, instead of an hour before the actual deadline. “Don't wait for the last minute to come on its own because it will come too late. Deliberately put yourself in situations that create pressure and urgency sooner.”