I was the Queen of Multi-tasking. There was no end to what I could juggle. Everyday was a personal challenge to see if I could add one more item. I had all the right tools—a phone, the headset, and to-do lists for my to-do lists. I bounced from one activity to another like I was playing the drums—until the day everything came crashing to a halt.
Unable to find my phone, I promptly switched to doing laundry—and in doing so, found the phone inside the washing machine. Needless to say, it needed replacing; and so did my system for getting things done.
Ed Hallowell, former Harvard professor, says in his book Driven to Distraction that my problem—and countless others—can be compared to ADD, with symptoms of being chronically inattentive, disorganized, and overbooked. But it’s not ADD, says Dr. Hallowell’s. It’s “a severe case of modern life.”
Learning to exercise your ‘focus muscle’
I clearly needed to develop some better habits and then practice my ability to mono-task. Experts tell us you can’t just decide one day to stay on task for 3 hours. Like working out a gym, I started to build up my ‘focus muscle’.
The first habit I learned was how to be more discerning. This is a key step in the Productivity Ninja productivity model—stop focusing on getting everything done, and instead focusing on getting the right things done.
As a working mother, there were many things I decided “not to get done”, i.e. matching up socks—and the universe hasn’t shifted off its axis. As a business person, I’ve also become more aware of what to let go. I don’t attend every meeting, I limit online chatter, and I never attempt my own book keeping.
The joy of lists
I’ve also changed my habits around to-do lists. I used to lump simple tasks like “buy toner” together with “develop a promotional campaign.” I also relied on cryptic notations such as “tax accountant”, “parking fine” or “store”.
The Productivity Ninja philosophy emphasizes separating out daily to-do lists from project lists, and giving each task actual direction. By simply adding verbs, the entries seem more doable (and definitely less stressful):
- “Tax accountant” became “send David tuition expense” (not nearly as scary)
- “Parking fine” (ugh) became “Pay ticket”, which finally got it off my mind
- “Store”? — that one got deleted until I remembered what I needed to buy
Find a location to go stealth
My most recent, and successful focus habit, was finding places where I could hide out (see our post on Getting Some Lonely).
There’s a certain magic in where you choose to do focus work. It’s actually not magic – it’s neuroscience. Specific locations are effective because the brain can be trained to associate specific kinds of work with certain specific places.
As a student, I used to work at the dining room table instead of my room when studying for exams. It was in the middle of the house, even a bit dimly lit, but it worked like a charm.
When I was the ruling Queen of Multi-tasking, I also became the Dowager of Anxiety. The same adrenaline that keeps those balls in the air delivers messages to your brain that keeps you on high alert.
A side benefit of gaining focus is the way it reduces anxiety. Working on a single task, with a single focus creates a Zen-like calm. My entire system heaves a happy sigh of relief when I review a detailed project list which spells out how everything is going to get done. There’s a certain triumph knowing that I’ve resisted the temptation to “do it all”. And what I do need to do, I find the place—and the time—to get it done without incident.
Now I’m more like “calm word magician”, accomplishing each task with some (I hope) finesse—and fewer equipment disasters.
Beth Parker is a Canadian author and ghostwriter engaged in a continual struggle to balance the needs of her business with the welcomed chaos of five children, a husband and various pets. She has a BA (English), University of Toronto, and an MA (Journalism). In her fictional spare time, she paints pictures.