I started to write this as I was drinking my morning coffee and giving my mom a quick call on skype, so I know what I’m talking about…
Over the last couple days I’ve heard about new and revised research on the idea of multitasking – doing several things ‘at once’ – and would like to explore the strengths (sip of coffee) and weaknesses of the mind and of a pattern of multiple streams of focus.
The Mind and Multiple Ideas
I’d like you to do a quick experiment. Starting with the first letter of the alphabet, say them out loud. “A, B, C, D, E, F…” Now starting with the number one, count them out loud (stopping at 30 if not before). “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7…” Now combine the first number and letter together, moving to the second number and letter and so on. “1-A, 2-B, 3-C, 4-D, (keep going)…” If you are like many people, the first two exercises are a lot easier than the third one (if not, this article may not be relevant to you).
There are a few rules of the mind that seem to line up to show how this works. The mind tends to be able to do one thing well at a time. When it is focused on one thing, it tends to lose focus on something else.
When you are looking for a specific phone, you’ll tend to see more phones than say something like DVD players, even though they may be in the same shop. Take a moment and spread your hands to your sides. Focus on your left hand for a few moments, now try to focus on your right hand while still focusing on your left – tough, right?
When we are learning and in the conscious mind, we also have limitations on the number of items we can hold in that part of our mind. Usually 7-9 bits of information at a time. If most of them are taken up with facebook, IM, twitter, email notification, skype, phone calls and texts… it really challenges the conscious mind to focus its bits on the work at hand.
But is it (Gender) Natural?
When I was speaking with my mother just a short while ago, we talked about multi-tasking and she thought that women did it better than men did, on the whole. Looking at history, our ability to adapt would make this a sensible option. In centuries gone by, ‘women’s work’ included cooking, cleaning, farming etc. At the same time, child rearing needed to go on in parallel to other work throughout the day (and night).
To keep offspring alive and life continuing, there is a natural priority to get this sort of multitasking right. Also, because the subconscious mind loves repetition, loves repetition, continued practice made this dual-plus processing more second nature (meaning it went into the subconscious mind to be automatic).
However, just as there is a difference between the logical, historic stress reaction to real predators versus the more psychological stressors of urban noise, looming recessions, and the list goes on – which makes us less able to turn off our stress reaction, the additional means of communication (facebook, text, IM, twitter, etc.) makes multi-tasking, actually called task shifting, more of a strain on our attention and effectiveness than most people – even women – can handle.
One step forward, two steps back?
Recent studies discovered how interruptions or shifting tracks of thought actually reduced productivity in a work setting. Subjects who were interrupted during a testing situation in research tended to reduce their scores by something like 20%. Which still makes for a potential 80%. However, that was with one interruption alone.
Other studies have shown that to get back on track from a distraction, it takes most people about 8 minutes. With general work apparently giving an opportunity for interruptions every 11 minutes, you can do the productivity math on that.
Some studies also show that a notification interruption can completely change the focus or direction of work for a person – often with the cost of restarting resulting in time lost – up to 28% of a knowledge worker’s day. Now that’s a lot of time lost!
It’s like thinning plants
I know that sometimes I don’t like to ‘close my windows’ and looking at my computer shows a multitasking tendency. I tend to have ALL my projects for the day open and waiting for my attention. Even though I know how multitasking can slow me down or be a good excuse for me to toggle between tasks, my upbringing was of ‘keeping options open’ rather than just going ahead with one assignment and then moving to the next.
Remember, our actions, feelings and thoughts are based on our perceptions and stories in our subconscious mind – so in my head I see that I am ‘killing’ all other ideas, rather than nurturing one idea to fruition.
Sometimes taking a good look at the way we play an idea in our head can reveal to us ways of changing. For me, all I have to do is look at my garden. Wherever I’ve ‘thinned’ plants, taken out some of the extra plants that crowd growth, the vegetables are growing strong and big, while in other areas where I didn’t pull some of the seedlings, the plants are crammed against each other, vying for limited resources and preventing further growth.
20% of 5, or 100% of 1?
Historically I have had a lot of things on the go – clients, classes, writing, talks, product development etc. All of this work is work I love to do. However, I know that when I did them all at once, it was like I was digging holes with a trowel rather than a shovel. I’d get a little bit done on each of them, but if there was treasure at the bottom of all of these holes, it took me a lot longer to get to all of them.
And the mind sees completion as a bit of a treasure. The chemical reaction of the body when it ‘ticks off’ something from the list includes endorphins, which create a feeling of well being. The mind usually likes a reward like that and may find ways to repeat it. When we are repatterning, success at a change is important, so this may inspire us to create a smaller goal at first, complete it at the exclusion of others, get our ‘gold star’ and start retraining the brain.
Train the Brain for Interruptions?
While I started this article during the day, I soon realized that my energy was split amongst various priorities and I stopped. I restarted at my ‘writing hour’ which is between 5:30 and 6:30am – even the birds are relatively quiet, no one else is around to disturb, and this is my sole focus (with a reward of coffee upon completion).
There may be coping mechanisms that you find work for you. Some of them are finding slots of time when there aren’t others/interruptions around, closing the door, turning off electronics and message services (or indicating ‘away’).
There are actually a number of ways that hypnosis can help. Just as we work with athletes to tune out the crowd during a competition, it’s possible to turn down the volume of distractions in our daily life. Often we can practice in boosting up our ability to focus and stay centred, or to rebalance once we’re accidentally set off course.
Many people have an ‘aftershock’ internal disruption in their work when they rebuke themselves for getting off track. Instead, giving yourself the gift of letting go, learning and moving on is a great way to refocus.
Sometimes we have been ‘hypnotised’ into believing that we can do it all, and do it all well. Sometimes we need to revisit old beliefs and revise them so that they better suit our current lifestyle and reality. Beliefs are fine, as long as they work with you, rather than against you – if it tends to be the latter, then your subconscious mind can change it.
One of the interruptions I’ve found that tends to create the most productivity is spending a few minutes doing self- hypnosis or self-relaxation. If you haven’t done the simple eyelid relaxation exercise with me, please click the link to go to a short video that I find helps me to centre, calm and refocus myself – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RavdUsj4LLE – allowing yourself to relax and calm tends to help in focus and productivity.
Giving yourself positive reinforcement through suggestions of what you DO want (I want to stay focused until I’m finished this), rather than what you DON’T want (I don’t want to be distracted and interrupted) also helps you move in the direction of your dreams.
Well, that’s all for the moment (I’ve got another deadline vying for my attention) – whether you read it in one go, or popped back and forth to complete it, you’ve finished something on your list – congratulations.
If you need any suggestions for focus or productivity, please let me know – I’m here to help.