Doing Less (and Getting More Done): My 2009 Resolution, Part Two


Greetings, and welcome to part two of “Doing Less (and Getting More Done): My 2009 Resolution.” In last week’s post, we questioned the value of multitasking and the gadgets and tools that make it possible, like IM, Internet-enabled mobile phones, and e-mail, all in terms of the negative effects they may have on our ability to get things done. We also brought up the problem of “continuous partial attention” syndrome, a product of the constant barrage of communication, information, news, and media with which we are faced, and a way of being that can cripple our ability to get anything done at all. Today we will take a deeper look at both these issues and offer some insight into how we can combat them in an effort to be more productive.

The ups and downs of multitasking

Is it really more productive? With the rising pressure on workers in every sector to produce more, better, and faster, the claim that multitasking and instant access to information may hurt our output in the long run is unlikely to please the managers and CEO’s of the world, but it makes sense. While multitasking poses little threat in situations where full attention is not required (having a casual phone conversation while folding your laundry, for example) and can actually help us save time (boiling water while chopping vegetables or filing paperwork while waiting for a client to answer the phone), when handling tasks that require abstract thinking, creativity, directed focus, and the executive functioning of our brains, multitasking makes it nearly impossible for us to do our best work. In fact, the mere idea that our brain can focus on more than one thing at a time is slowly being discounted as a myth.

How to solve the problem of doing too little too much

Fortunately, solving the problem of multitasking is simple enough: prioritize daily activities, set out to focus on one thing for an extended period (also known as ‘chunking‘), limit the amount of time spent on email and IM, and cut out unnecessary distractions wherever possible. Many people who put forth the effort find it possible to change their ways, combat their multitasking habits, and start getting more done every day. There are even instances of corporations who gift their employees with things like “Email-Free Fridays.” Unfortunately, however, limiting how much we multitask is only part of the productivity equation: the second part requires us to combat our penchant for paying attention, to everything – and the second part is much more difficult to navigate than the first.

Why paying attention isn’t always a good idea

Continuous partial distractionThe rise of continuous partial attention as a way of life seems to be a natural outcome to the digital revolution, wherein broad and constant access to real-time communication and information makes it possible to access almost any piece of media within an instant. Being socialized for productivity, and with the understanding that success = action, we human beings make frantic attempts to stay abreast of everything, always worrying about missing that one tiny piece of information that could lead to an important opportunity. In the end, rather than maximizing our opportunities, we tend to miss out on the most important opportunity of all: the present. The present is the time to get things done and what we do in the present invariably affects what happens to us in the future. In an effort to consume as much as possible, we get used to diverting our focus away from the task at hand, so much so that focusing on anything for more than a few minutes at a time seems unnatural, and unproductive – and the latter could not be further from the truth. What is the result? A frenzied pattern of communication, info-sharing, and knowledge consumption with little to show in the way of results. A well-connected, highly-informed lifestyle that has inhibited our ability to connect and inform.

How to combat continuous partial attention syndrome and regain your ‘flow’

A psychological state of awareness, engagement, and well-beingIt’s tough and takes some serious willpower, but with focused action, it is possible to recondition ourselves to ignore the countless information ‘opportunities’ that arrive by the minute and focus on one thing at a time. Doing so involves making the same changes you would make to limit multitasking (cut out email and IM, cancel meetings, and chunk your activities), but the only way to truly escape the trap of continuous partial attention to achieve a state of ‘flow‘ (aka a state of mental alertness wherein you are so consumed by the task at hand that nothing else matters). Many people describe having been in a state of flow while completing long-haul tasks such as writing a novel, programming a software application, or composing a symphony, and others claim meditation and prayer helps them keep the flow more often.

Regardless of how you see it, there is no getting around the fact that focusing on one task at a time is much easier to do when you aren’t trying, and while it’s much easier to get into a state of flow when you enjoy what you are doing, pure enjoyment of a task does not always equate to an improved natural ability to focus. The idea is to get into a state of flow no matter what you need to do.

If it sounds scary, it might be. But if you really want to be productive, you must actively seek a state of flow (in addition to putting an end to multitasking), and the best way do this is by hacking your tasks and getting granular. Divide larger tasks into easily accomplished items that can be checked off your to-do list. Make a game out of boring tasks like filing or spring cleaning. Set creative mini-goals for yourself and find some humor in them.

And that’s all she wrote. I hope this post helps you tune in and get more done in 2009.

Until next time…

  • http://ryanhammill.carbonmade.com Ryan

    This post makes an excellent point that paying attention to everything is the equivalent of paying attention to nothing. The funny part is this continual state of distraction actually inhibits the part of the brain most linked to success in any organizational structure: executive function.

    From what I understand, psychologists define executive function as the brain activity that produces cognitive reasoning, concentration and impulse control. When children are measured for their powers of executive function over time, the ones showing the greatest prowess with behavior control were the ones that did the best in school, got good jobs and were successful in careers.

    Not the smartest. Not the hardest working. Just the ones with impulse control and concentration.

    So why do we break our attention for distractions, when research points to it diminishing our ability to succeed?

    Good post to combat the ways modern communications can invade our ability to truly maximize our time.

  • http://www.wpromote.com Amanda Moshier

    Thanks, Ryan! The importance of executive brain functions is interesting and troublesome. These functions don’t fully develop until early adulthood and yet they are one of the most important factors in determining success.

    I think we see this at play all the time. People without the best skills or smarts moving ahead those who could do a better job if they could only…focus.

    Regardless of who you are and whether you are where you want to be, it makes sense to try and weed out some of the distractions that come with our constantly-connected lives, whether that means disabling our Wi-Fi connections, turning off the cell phone, or opting out of IM when possible.

  • Dude

    I tried to finish reading this blog post but then..

  • Mike Stone

    Honestly, I got 1/3 the way through and got distracted; by the comment I wanted to leave and then my email and IM interrupted that. Email free Fridays! HAR HAR. That seems like a great idea until actually carried out. Similar to a paper free office Chiat/Day tried. Turned out to be a total disaster and a text book example of how not to run an office…

  • Dude2

    Great post! I especially liked the part where… oh shiny!!

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  • http://www.wpromote.com Amanda Moshier

    Thanks for the link! Great topic.