Multitasking or FOMO-ing? How to accomplish more in less time

You’re sitting at your desk, frantic about a deadline while producing content, going through emails, checking your phone for messages, and distractedly listening to a virtual meeting on another project. For some reason, you can’t seem to focus or to get much done… Of course! You can’t, and most likely nobody could focus or get anything done in this situation, either: our brains are not designed to do this kind of multiple juggling function.

Multitasking was initially researched with someone having an easy conversation while doing something else, maybe typing a text from handwritten notes. One activity demanded focused attention, the other was background and largely automatic. So you can have a conversation while driving your car because the conversation is your focus, and driving is largely automatic – a background function… You don’t remember how you got home, because you were caught up talking with a friend.

Today, multitasking can mean two entirely different things: the first one is what you were trying to do all at once. The second is the ability to work on multiple projects/ files without losing track of what you’ve done and where you’re heading, and it’s the definition often used in job descriptions. It doesn’t mean that you do it all at once, simply that you can remember more than one thing and not get lost or forget when your attention is needed elsewhere. This last definition is the brain-healthy one; the first one “do-everything-at-once” is iffy to put it mildly: you try to do it all; you get flustered and stressed; it requires your brain to constantly refocus from A to B. You are chronically distracted, much less performant and substantially less productive.

Process what you just read: what you’ve been doing is not productive and it makes you more stressed. It’s not multi-tasking: it’s FOMO – fear of missing out, as you check the landscape for the next thing that might kill you, such as not meeting all the competing deadlines on your desk. FOMO is actually an indicator of stress as your brain tells you to be on guard and check for the next grizzly. It doesn’t make you more productive – just more watchful and distracted. And here is something else: stay in that mode long enough, and often enough, and it rewires your brain into permanent FOMO mode. You progressively lose the ability to stay focused enough to accomplish.

Whenever we go into FOMO/multitasking mode, neuro-psychology research tells us that we slow down by 50% and we make 50% more mistakes. And you’re not better at it because you’re a woman or because you’re younger: no one is great in distracted mode, and you’re not cloning yourself by doing two or more things at once. You’re simply checking and rechecking to make sure nothing that could “kill you” escapes your attention.

So, what works? First, take control over your attention (the monkey in your brain) and of your technology instead of letting them rule your days. The average Canadian checks their phone 150 times a day – yes, this not a typo. How about you? And how many times do you check your emails? How about the chat on Teams? Skype? You can work better, be more efficient, less stressed and more productive. Here is how, in 10 steps:

  1. Take 30: give yourself 30 minutes of focused space and time to work without distractions
  2. Accessories: have a plain kitchen timer handy, a pad of paper, pen, and your pile of work
  3. Take control: text your colleagues that you’ll be busy for the next 30 minutes
  4. Turn off unnecessary technology: turn off all sounds and banners on your phone, emails, etc. for 30 minutes.
  5. Turn on the kitchen timer for 30 minutes. Now you are ready to get started!
  6. Assess and prioritize: what deserves your full attention, right now? This is what you’ll do now.
  7. Put aside what is not a priority and what can wait.
  8. Give your top priority 30 minutes of undivided attention. If this is a first, know that practice will make it easier!
  9. Whenever you feel FOMO fear, don’t go into check-mode, instead write down a word to remind you to check at the end of 30 minutes. You are regaining control over your stressed brain.
  10. After 30 minutes, take a short break and admire your accomplishment. It was hard, but totally worth it.

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