The demon of task-switching

sydney-sims-519706-unsplash.jpgPhoto by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

Ask someone how their work day is going, and they’ll probably tell you that they’re busy. It’s the default small-talk answer; a less boastful way of saying that they’re a productive, valuable employee, despite the fact that they constantly have Messenger discreetly open on their screen. The busyness claim isn’t necessarily a lie, many of us genuinely feel this frantic sense of rushing throughout the day, as though there aren’t enough hours to accomplish what’s important. We often leave the office with a frazzled brain, with Netflix and the warmth of our partner as the only remedies that can haul us from the brink, until morning rolls around and we have to go through the same stressful process again. If Sisyphus happens to be a colleague of yours, he’ll be watching on with mournful, comprehending eyes.

Busyness does not equate to productivity, not by a long shot. We’ve all had unquestionably busy days, and felt like we’ve achieved nothing. Productivity is burdened by a nefarious snake lurking in the shadows, which strikes regularly and with great force – distraction. It’s a defining 21st century problem, with entire industries dedicated to seizing your attention and holding onto it for as long as possible. We have smart phones; smart TVs, smart watches; flashing and buzzing with alluring notifications that are almost impossible to ignore. How can you be expected to maintain your focus on what’s important when your wrist is constantly purring at you? Forget about holding an engaging, valuable conservation with another human if you both have your phones on the table – you’re communicating that the most important thing in your bubble is the sinful black device that you’re secretly praying will light up, to distract you from the uncomfortableness of human interaction. Reading a message on your phone is less awkward than trying to adequately communicate with the person sitting opposite you, but the latter is a profoundly more effective way to interact, because it includes vocal tone, and body language. Not only are the technological distractions of our era making us less productive, they’re fucking with our ability to communicate as well.

Being distracted/busy is easier than being productive, because often, the important work that we need to get done is challenging. The gentle rumble of our phones, the emails, or the Slack notifications are greatly anticipated, as it means we don’t have to feel dumb anymore, even for the briefest moment. Those few seconds of distraction add up to hours over the course of the day, and according to experts, the incessant context-switching might be stealing away almost half of your work day. Another study returned less drastic results – up to a quarter of your productive time. Each content-switch squanders a measurable amount of energy reserves, and damages your competency for the next task, especially if it’s a complex one. One experiment found that constant online distractions can be as damaging to your intelligence as missing an entire night’s sleep, or being a regular marijuana smoker, a staggering find. There’s also the flow state to consider – that elusive condition of getting into the zone, where your productivity reaches terrific peaks. You’ll never attain this state of mind without extended focus – it’ll take you 12 minutes to re-enter it, after every distraction. You’re depriving yourself of a bucketload of fulfilment if you continue to live a life of interminable task-switching. Science clearly tells us that we cannot physically multi-task – all we’re doing is quickly switching between work, and the moments that it takes our brains to re-align add up to precious hours. Personally, on days when I’ve been particularly distracted, I find that I’m more tired and infinity more irritable in the evening, to the chagrin of my suffering girlfriend.

If you’re exhausted from having your attention constantly and selfishly yanked away from you, try some of the following tips.

Do just one thing at a time. The more you task-switch, the more tired and stressed you’ll feel, in addition to being a great-deal less effective throughout the course of the day. Do whatever it takes to maintain your focus on a single thing, then move onto the next once done.

Turn off your notifications. This isn’t as traumatising as you might expect – whatever your colleagues are messaging you about can probably wait for a few hours, and your Facebook notifications can wait for a fucking eternity if you know what’s good for you.

Be proactive, not reactive. You don’t have to read every notification or respond to every message instantly. Your colleagues and friends aren’t going to cast you out like the heinous village rapist. Be proactive by taking some time at the start of each day to write up a list of what’s important to you, and set allocated periods for stuff like emails/messages. If you’re brave enough to resist the dopamine-fuelled buzz of distraction, you’ll likely achieve many great things.

Take the occasional 15-minute break. Studies have found that people who do this are more productive. You might consider adopting the Pomodoro technique, a productivity and time-management tool that can yield fantastic results. There’s free apps out there specifically for this method of working.

Invest in some good quality, noise-cancelling headphones. People are fucking distracting, and we’re just as blameworthy because we often want to be distracted. Drown out your pesky colleagues with some beautifully ambient sounds. Personally, my favourite is Rain on a Tent, it’s like camping and working at the same time. While you have your headphones on, politely ask your colleagues not to distract you.

Practice mindfulness. This may as well be a technique from the gods, it’s espoused by medical professionals, productivity gurus, health coaches, and every other well-being related profession the world over. All you really need to do is sit still every day for 15 minutes, and try to retain your focus on your breathing. Eventually, you’ll learn to recognise when your brain has wandered off, and to bring your focus back to what’s important. Meditation isn’t some mystical practice performed by orange-clad ninja monks, it’s a fantastically useful tool for everybody to use. There’s a solid reason for its popularity of late.

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You can reclaim a good chunk of time that has been stolen by distractive task-switching, and become a much more efficient and fulfilled chimp. Hold a steady hand up to all those who would distract you, and take your happiness to new heights.

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