Multi-tasking is overrated – Focus on what’s important

Last updated on May 25th, 2022 at 03:03 am

Recently I returned from spending several weeks in The Netherlands. You know how these holidays can go – among your souvenirs you bring home new ideas, inspiration for change, certainly more knowledge about this planet – and usually about yourself as well. I unpacked all of the above along with warm memories of time spent with family and friends.

I pretty much ignored my smart phone while I was away. My kids knew they could call if they had an urgent reason. Other than that, I relied on e-mail and Facebook, which I checked occasionally. So one new awareness that I brought home is how much more present I was without having that cell phone in my hand or purse or briefcase, i.e. within reach. It stayed in the suitcase most of the time.

Sometime ago I stopped using the phone while driving. The final nudge for this decision came from reading a study that was conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. They put cameras in 100 cars for one year to track driver behavior. They found that driver inattention is the leading factor in most crashes, with the most common distraction for drivers being cell phone use. In this study, they found that nearly 80 percent of crashes involved drivers being distracted just three seconds before the crash. If you get injured by a distracted or negligent driver, you may hire a car accident lawyer to help you file a claim and be compensated for your expenses.

I was impressed that such a brief time of inattention could, well, kill you or someone else. Just three seconds. It is not safe to multi-task while driving a vehicle, period. (Other distractions they noted in the study were grooming, reaching for something in the car, drowsiness, and looking at something exterior to the car and unrelated to the road ahead.)

My time during the holiday in Holland was so rich because I was not multi-tasking. I started reflecting on all the times we attempt to multi-task while at work. It may be using the cell phone surreptitiously during meetings. (Does anyone really get away with this?) It may be putting your attention on the upcoming lunch meeting while you’re having a conversation with an associate. It may be checking your email while you’re supposedly engaged with a client on the phone.

The multi-tasking list is endless and really bright people often are the worst offenders. The thinking is something like, “I’m smart enough to do all these things at once.” When we do divide our attention into small slices, we not only deprive ourselves of the pure pleasure of being present in the moment, we also do not fool anyone. From early on, people know when they have the gift of someone’s complete attention – and when they don’t. Ever pretend to listen to your spouse while mentally you’re re-playing the last three holes of your morning’s round of golf?

With the world moving faster every minute, and bombarding us with new technology and so much information, we must make choices about where we’ll give the gift of our attention, and where we won’t. No one has a net big enough to catch all the information flying about. If we don’t resist some of the distractions and intentionally decide where we want to focus, we can easily drown in data.

A few years ago Peter Bregman wrote a piece published in the Harvard Business Review called “Two Lists You should Look at Every Morning.” He recommended making two lists every morning. One is the “Focus List” (the road ahead). There you list what’s important to you that day. What do you want to achieve? What makes you happy? He tells us to design our time around those things. The second list is the “Ignore List” (the distractions). What is not important to you? What gets in the way?

Bregman isn’t suggesting that we be on-task every second of the day, but that we focus on the most important tasks, and intentionally ignore the distractions. If a nice walk in the middle of the day suits you, put it in your plan. If a phone call to your funny brother refreshes you, by all means allow yourself that. If 365 email messages are screaming for your attention, don’t stay up half the night trying to answer them. Sort out the important ones and use that lovely delete button for those that are distracting and not important. You can choose what to focus your attention on, and what to ignore.

You may be creating your own survival kit.

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