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Multitasking Is Making You Crazy. Focus on Feeling Good One Task at a Time.


Is it me, or does December feel like the busiest month of the year? This is the month that seems to be the sieve through which the whole year pours. I hold my arms out wide but only seem to have the capacity to catch half of what comes my way.  

As I head toward my last day of work for the year before taking two weeks off, I feel myself stretch to do more of everything. This is the season I feel my motherhood acutely. As the mom of two middle schoolers, I am the kids' go-to person for all needs, questions, and urgent requests. My concentration exists in tatters in after school hours when they roam free in my otherwise serene home work space (aka the house). If they need carting around, they come calling. Motivated to help them out within reason and selfishly to get them out of the house to salvage my focus, I find myself forfeiting control of my time as I slide straight into “doing” mode, taking on tasks that are neither urgent nor important.  

Juggling work and personal life during the holidays is a dizzying endeavor. The more stretched I allow myself to get, the worse my decisions become. Yesterday I caught myself amid the most absurd level of multitasking that was edging on ineffectual. 

I’ll paint the picture for you. 

It’s mid-morning. I’m standing barefoot in leggings on my yoga mat in my home office. An audiobook plays through my Bluetooth speaker, while I work my way through a series of seemingly endless single-leg lifts. It’s a new workout and I instantly don’t like it. 50 reps per leg times seven sets. 

Boredom struck after the first set. I turned to my iWatch and set at 50-second timer, outsourcing the job of counting reps. I turned my focus away from the form of my leg in space, optimistic it would do its thing automatically. Without the burden of holding time, I picked up my phone. Into the portal of my iPhone I slid, sinking into distraction as I scrolled for Christmas gifts for the kids. My leg continued to listlessly flick toward the ceiling. 

. . .36, 37, 38, 39 . . . 

After 6 reps (300 leg lifts!), I noticed my leg was barely making it halfway to the level of my hip.

My form had plummeted and with it, the effectiveness of the workout. In that moment I was aware of what was at stake. My lack of focus was jeopardizing my ability to honor my value of being strong in body and mind. I was subverting my goal to build strength by effectively dozing off, amounting to a heap of wasted time and effort.

I shook the fog out of my head and recommitted myself to the job I was there to do. 

As I lifted my leg the final 50 times (I still didn't like the workout), I shifted my attention to the words steaming from the speaker. It was then that I was aware of the irony of my situation. 

The average office worker now spends 40 percent of their work time wrongly believing they are "multitasking"--which means they are incurring all these costs for their attention and focus. In fact, uninterrupted time is becoming rare. One study found that most of us working in offices never get a whole hour uninterrupted in a normal day.

The book I was listening to was Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again.  

Head slap. Yes. This is my life.

We all fall into ruts. We make mistakes. We do foolish things. That's being human. I get lazy and take on too much, often all at once.

It's harder to be disciplined, say no, and hold space for the important and non-urgent things in life like quality time with loved ones, yoga class in the middle of a full work day, and stepping away from the screens to sit down to think for a moment, but it's worth it.


Here are three tips to hold your focus on what's most important to sustain your focus and energy for a clear start to the year ahead:

1. Be single-minded and monotask–

Hold space to do one thing at a time. Multitasking is a bit of a misnomer. The term suggests that we can focus on numerous tasks simultaneously, but what we are doing is juggling between many tasks. This requires us to quickly switch focus between tasks which taxes our whole system, leading to our energy and focus drain, causing errors and omissions. For an in-depth exploration of how to recover our focus in a digital age, read Johann Hari's book, "Stolen Focus."

2. Lead from intention–

Plan your day based on how you want to feel. Two key words in that sentence: Plan and feel. Taking the time to pay attention to our emotional experience and account for what we want more of is a secret for success that is often overlooked. If you are entering a challenging week, set yourself up for success by reflecting before you slip out of bed in the morning: How do I want to feel today?

Whatever your answer, next reflect on what action can you commit to taking that will support you to feel that way. If your intention is to feel centered, you may choose to set an alarm every hour to remind you to take three deep breaths and remember why feeling centered is a commitment made to yourself.

3. Time block + white space–

Review your week ahead and block time for the activities and tasks you are prioritizing, building your week from the resources of time and focus you realistically have available to you. Expanding on the first two tips, remember to account for the time you need to really focus on one thing at a time while holding a soft focus on how you want to feel.

Oliver Burkeman, in his great book "4,000 Weeks: Time-Management for Mortals," reminds us often that our time on earth is finite, but our choice of how to express our priorities is infinite. If we don't prioritize what's most important, especially during the year-end holiday craze, we'll find ourselves in a rut, reacting to life coming at us rather than responding with intention.

Know your rocks. Give them the attention they deserve.

Slow down to focus on one thing at a time. Notice how you feel. 

Say no despite your fear of missing out. Think of your no to someone else as a yes to yourself.

Read Johann Hari's book. You can find it here.

And don't be too hard on yourself. It's Christmas! Happy holidays you!


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