Once upon a time, a few years ago (before COVID…), my little sister, the super-smart doctor, came to Memphis for a conference, and while she was in Memphis she came to visit me.
And we were sitting in my kitchen, my super-smart sister and I, where I was trying to finish up a couple of work things so she and I could go for a walk and get some exercise before I made a batch of cocktails.
And while I was doing a work thing, I got a call from one of my children. So I was talking on the phone, and typing a work email at the same time. When I finished those things, I said to my super-smart sister: This is my day, every day, all day long. I am a D1 varsity multi-tasker.
And my sister said: You know there’s no such thing as multi-tasking, right?
And I said: Sure there is; I do it all day, every day.
And she said: No, Jennifer, there isn’t. Our brains are incapable of doing two complex tasks at the same time. You are not multi-tasking. You are task-SWITCHING all day, every day. And it’s very inefficient. And bad for you.
Then she made me do this very simple, terrible exercise, one that you can do, too. In fact, you really need to do this. Do it now:
Get a pen, a blank sheet of paper, and a timer.
For round 1:
- Start the timer.
- Write the alphabet (26 letters, in order, A to Z).
- Then, on a line below the letters, write the numbers 1 to 26, in order.
- Stop the timer. Write down how long it took to write those two lines of letters and numbers.
For round 2:
- Start the timer.
- Write the alphabet and the numbers 1-26, alternating after each entry. (So, “A 1 B 2 C 3…” and so on.)
- Stop the timer when you’ve finished writing “Z 26.” Note how long it took to do it this way. Be appropriately discouraged.
There is no such thing as multi-tasking. There is only task switching. And it’s really, really inefficient. And stressful. And error-prone. And fucking exhausting.
And the way of life, now.
A colleague said to me, about six months ago, “I just can’t seem to keep my battery charged – know what I mean?”
Yes, I told her. I very much knew exactly what she meant.
Because we are all task-switching in ways we never imagined because every day involves constant vigilance and threat assessment and risk management for a pandemic that just won’t end (and don’t even get me started about why that’s true) and all the side effects of the pandemic.
Couldn’t we just “S.M.A.R.T. goal” or Gantt chart our way out of all this? No, Jane; we couldn’t. And no, a productivity software suite is definitely, definitely not the answer either.
The only relief from over-reliance on task-switching is to work at doing less of it. Bummer, right? But that’s the answer. Because our brains are not made to keep going like this, at this pace, for this long. You can see why; it’s all around you. The short tempers and flares of bat-shit-crazy behavior? Overloaded, tired brains that can’t get fully charged and hold a charge they way they would in normal times.
Some things that work for me, that may or may not work for you, are pretty simple:
Once a week (although it ends up being more like once a month… ish), at the end of a work day (preferably on a Friday) I do brain dump. I get a fresh, clean sheet of paper and a pen (or pencil – which I actually prefer), and I write down, free-form, every single thing that’s on my mind or on my mental to-do list. I write it all. And then I tuck that piece of paper in my paper planner so I can use it as a reference to start fresh the next week. I’ve done this for years – long before COVID – and it really does work to help me focus and tackle the items on the list, one by one. Every time I do a brain dump, I feel better instantly. Maybe you’ll give it a try, if you don’t use it already?
Another thing that helps me is probably counterintuitive: I take breaks throughout the day and do non-productive things (exercise, walk the dogs, sew a little bit on a sewing project). Do I have time to take breaks? No; I do not. I also do not have time NOT to take breaks, because my brain just stops working right when it has too many inputs. A 10 or 15 minute reset, several times a day, makes for a more productive – and much calmer – day overall. Like I said, it’s counterintuitive. But I promise it works.
Third thing? I’ve learned to recognize the physical feeling when my brain has hit its task-switching limit. When I feel that feeling, I say to myself (like, actually, aloud): “What’s the one most important thing that absolutely has to get done before you can go to bed tonight?” And I’ll focus on getting that one thing done. Which usually frees up some disk space to do a little more.
Last but not least? I try to be happy. Literally, I work at being happy. Because a happy brain is a healthier brain, and a healthier brain can get more shit done in the long run. And that is the gospel truth.
And on that note, I offer you “A Very Happy Brain,” from Dr. Amit Sood, one of the world’s leading experts on resilience and wellbeing.
Want to read more about task-switching and ways to get out of that terrible habit? Here are a few I find helpful:
The Myth of Multitasking (Psychology Today, 2011)
How to Stop Task Switching Without Actually Fighting It (Team Gantt blog)
Happy Brain: How to Overcome Our Neural Predispositions to Suffering (Dr. Amit Sood, TEDxUNI)
This post is 39/56 in a self-directed challenge to write (or at least post) something (SOMETHING) every day – a birthday gift to me from me, because writing gives me a place to put the clutter that lives in my head.