You might think that working on two projects at the same time will make you feel like you're accomplishing more. That's the myth of multitasking. In many cases it's just not true.

According to a 2016 study by Stanford University researchers, multitasking actually makes you under-perform, especially for more complex tasks.

Also, when you switch from one task to another, your attention span takes a hit, both in the present moment and longer-term. Nowadays, nobody needs digital distractions adding to their mental clutter.

Time-blocking may be the technique that helps you counteract the impulse to multitask. It helped me cut down the number of minutes I spend working each day. Follow these steps and get ready to work smarter and more effectively-- not harder and fumbling towards burnout.

Avoid multitasking by time-blocking.

Time-blocking is literally what its name suggests: scheduling tasks in blocks of time.

The idea here is to focus your attention on a single task for a given amount of time, and schedule your tasks as if they were appointments. If it's not scheduled, it won't go as planned. That's the main key: plan in advance and stick to the plan.

1. Decide when to schedule what.

The first task is to observe yourself objectively.

Take a few days to pay attention to what times and days are your most productive and which ones have you function more on auto-pilot. This will help determine when you should schedule your harder and more creatively-intensive work, and at what times you should work on tasks that require less focus.

An effective way to do this is by journaling your regular activities. Write down your tasks and how you felt energy and motivation-wise while performing them. Write down when you find yourself giving in to multi-tasking. You'll consult this later as you decide what to schedule and when.

In my case, I noted that I typically feel strongest and most creative in the morning hours. It's when I feel able to tackle multiple projects at once. In the past, this resulted in me trying to complete writing projects while answering emails or interacting on social media throughout. This slowed all of those tasks down and made me less effective on each.

I can guarantee I lost close to an hour of time in front of the computer many days because each task took longer in the end, or required corrections because of mistakes I made due to lack of focus. Working this way also gave me a scattered feeling that pervaded all my work and spoiled the enthusiasm so key to keeping a rhythm in my work. It was time to reorganize.

2. Organize your tasks.

As I found a good understanding of my best days and times, the next step was to prioritize tasks by both importance and urgency. Sometimes those may be the same thing, but I always give priority to the first.

In my case, completing writing work in the morning had the most importance for me. I decided to block out one to two hours for this work (with small pomodoro breaks along the way). After that, I knew I would be ready for more mechanical, rote work such as answering emails and Slack requests.

Organizing your tasks in order of importance like this will help you stop doing "busy work," and instead advance your most important work and your longer term goals.

In my journal I noticed that whenever I put out daily fires during the day I felt drained and lost. It made me prone to multitasking, because I only dealt with what was urgent in the moment. 

3. Optimize your agenda.

The next step is some quality time with your agenda, iCal, Google Calendar, or any other tool you use for planning your days.

Color-coding can be a very useful tool if you're a more visual person, and can help you easily identify categories of tasks at a glance. I assign the color red in my Google Calendar for absolutely vital work tasks that need attention earlier in the day.

Based on your optimal times, designate days and times for usual tasks according to importance, difficulty, and urgency. I work like a machine in the mornings, so that's the time I schedule my most important writing work. I don't waste too many hours of peak brain activity answering emails. I save it for the afternoons, when I feel slower and less creative.

Assign time blocks according to your best estimates, and adjust accordingly, until you feel it's an optimal reflection of your priorities, energy levels, and personal needs.

Finally, remember Parkinson's law and act accordingly. If you think you can accomplish a task in an hour, don't assign it more time, or you'll end up wasting time.

Published on: Apr 25, 2019
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