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Unitasking

The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.” – Henry Miller

photo by sethoscope, via  flickr creative commons

photo by sethoscope, via flickr creative commons

I used to think that multitasking — trying to ALWAYS kill two birds with one stone — was the best way to squeeze more into my life.  And in some ways, I still believe this.  I like to to do walking meetings.  I like to listen to podcasts while I work out.  And yes, date night (well, date day) is often a bike ride or a trail run.

But I’ve noticed that there is a stark difference between “combining activities to be efficient” and the dark side of multitasking which feels stressful and chaotic and “one foot out the door” at all times.  We see the latter everywhere these days — the guy at the gym talking on his phone and reading The Economist while he “works out” on the elliptical machine…the colleague who is banging out emails during another colleague’s presentation…the mom catching up with her friends at the park while her kid masters the monkey bars for the first time ever.  I recognize these people because as much as I’d like to think otherwise, I am more like them than I am unlike them.

There’s a ton of data out there about how multitasking impacts our productivity, our creativity, our memory, and our ability to influence others.  A Stanford study found that “people who chronically engage in media-multitasking exhibit certain cognitive deficits: specifically, they have more trouble ignoring distractions, keeping irrelevant memories from interfering in their present task, and switching from one task to another, mostly because they can’t help thinking about the task they’re not doing.”  And if you’re interested in this research, check out this article or a book written a few years ago called The Myth of Multitasking: How “Doing It All” Gets Nothing Done (a few basic google search terms will open up a spigot of related information too).

Despite reading about this for years, I’m only just now beginning to make the shift from multitasking to unitasking (as we know, information does not equal behavior change).  I’m trying out a bunch of practices to see what’s easy and what’s hard…what sticks and what doesn’t.

  • Check email at set intervals (morning, noon, end of workday, end of day)
  • Close tabs when I’m done with them (goodbye, days of last week’s kayak search still being open in my browser)
  • Try a new workspace when starting a new task (mixing up the environment can work wonders)
  • Embrace airplane mode (believe it or not, your phone’s airplane mode works at the park, at dinner, and at parties too!)
  • Clear the table (remove any technology, newspapers, books, magazines, legos, etc from the table and focus on the food and the company)
  • Schedule reading time (save media/blog reading for a structured hour each morning rather than reading all day long)
  • Work on a passion project (like a blog! or an art project!  or building robots in your basement!)
  • Sleep (sleep = unitasking by default!)

How do you feel about multitasking?  When does killing two birds with one stone help you, and when does it hurt you and the people around you?  Do you have any unitasking secrets to share?

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’ve been thinking about my development goals (performance plans are due!). I want to write and think more and like this framing of moving from multitasking to unitasking in order to accomplish this goal. I think your above list is great. I’m going to add “Schedule writing time” to my list and am going to try to do this on the one day a week I work from home. Thanks for the inspiration!

    July 11, 2013

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