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How to multitask effectively

Growing up, the modus operandi was generally the same – there was one major life axis to which I gave all my attention while largely ignoring all others. In primary school, it was all about getting the best grades and generally performing with distinction at school. In secondary school, it was all about improving my soccer game every time I set foot on a pitch. At the college level, it was all about getting those degrees and equipping myself with the best qualifications I could. In general, this M.O. worked pretty well up until I hit graduate school… that was when everything changed.

In graduate school, I all of a sudden got assailed by a number of responsibilities that demanded my attention. I had classes to take, I had academic research to do, a newfound artistic talent to nurture, and bills to pay. As is typical of our inherently human lazy streak, my first reaction to this added stress was to pretend that I didn’t have to pay attention to any of my new responsibilities until something broke. The identity of the thing that “broke” isn’t nearly as important as what it signaled – “You can’t get away with ignoring any of your responsibilities, you’ve got to find time to give each of them the required attention”. Grudgingly, I eventually rolled up my sleeves and learned how to multitask. I have summarized a few of the major nuggets of wisdom that I have learned through that growth process below in the hopes that it helps others get a better grasp on how to better handle their busy lives.

  1. Settle on the things you’ve got to focus on
  2. Before you even get started trying to multitask, it is very important to settle on the things that you deem important in your life at each particular time. It is important to keep this list manageable so that you don’t get overwhelmed. Some folks can deftly manage to multitask five different major points of interest, while others feel more comfortable with three. This shouldn’t be a matter of pride or competitiveness… be honest with yourself and figure out how many things you can actively devote time to and settle on them.

  3. Multitasking in the popular sense of the term is inefficient
  4. Just accept that multitasking by definition is inefficient. A good analogy for this is the game of soccer in which the body part you use for movement (your legs) is the same exact body part that you use to control the ball. As a result, a soccer player will almost always move slower when dribbling a ball than he or she otherwise would when running a 100m dash for example. In the same way, doing two things at the same time often leads to difficulty unless you adjust in an intelligent way.

  5. Time yourself
  6. So the big secret about multitasking is to completely focus on one task at a time for a relatively short period of time before moving on to other items on your agenda. So for example, let’s assume that we both know a guy who currently has the following list of things that he is focusing on in his life right now

    1. Health
    2. Professional gardening
    3. Professional musician – saxophone
    4. Friends

    To get all these things done, our mutual imaginary friend may go about his business in the following way:

    1. Wake up and take 10 minutes to make a green smoothie (health)
    2. Go to the gym or run outside for 1 hour (health)
    3. Set a timer for 30 minutes and devote that time completely to tending his garden. With an emphasis on just working hard without worrying too much about getting any one particular task done (professional gardening)
    4. Set time for 30 minutes and devote that time completely to practicing on his saxophone (professional musician)
    5. Rinse and repeat the gardening/saxophone cycle for as many iterations as he can or wants to
    6. Spend the later hours of the evening honoring his friends invite to a party where he can mingle and catch up with them (friends)

    I hope you get the general idea which is to make sure that you attack things in mini blocks of time, focusing on just one thing for the entirety of each mini block of time. It is important to make sure that you pick a manageable number of things to multitask if you want to end up being effective. Too many things leads to too little time spent on each one which isn’t very effective.

  7. Make and keep solid alliances
  8. This one is simple. You want to have the best people in your corner who can motivate you and keep you honest as you strive towards your end goal. Let’s assume for instance that you are a musician who also likes to exercise, and garden. You’d probably be well served to set up your circumstances in the following way:

    • Join a band with other good musicians who won’t tolerate it if you are late or don’t know your stuff come gig time
    • Have a gym buddy which could be a colleague, your husband, your wife who won’t tolerate it if you blow off a workout.
    • Turn your gardening semi pro and have some customers who are counting on you to finish your work in a reasonable amount of time.

    Note: Making alliances may not work for the loners amongst us, but loners tend to be self motivated in my experience.

  9. Have a review of all your to-do’s each week
  10. No matter how well organized you are, there is bound to be something that occasionally falls through the cracks. It is therefore important to find a way to measure your performance on a regular basis. So for instance, you could use a weight scale to let you know how well you are keeping up with your health goals. You could check your bank balance to remind yourself about how well you are doing with your financial goals and so on. This kind of self assessment time should be planned ahead of time otherwise it is easy to skip and just pretend like everything’s going great, whereas it may not be.

    A word of caution here is to please not beat yourself up if you find you have been slipping in one area of the other. This is merely an assessment exercise that is supposed to help you know when and where to put more effort in.

So there it is folks, some solid tips for getting better at multitasking. Chances are that better multitasking skills will come in handy in our more complicated modern world as each of us are responsible for a multitude of things at any given time. From all of us here at the blog, I hope you find some measure of value from this article. Take care of yourselves and each other.
Without Wax
Oyolu B.C. Ph.D.
Check out the Time Capsule Page

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