Serial-tasking, NOT multitasking, makes you more productive

Today, multitasking can mean two entirely different things: the first 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 definition is the brain-healthy one.

But to most of us, multitasking is entirely different: it’s “do-everything-at-once”. You try to do more, fit it all in by dividing your attention in multiple zones all at once: you’re trying to keep on top of emails, chat and incoming texts as you’re writing a report or having a phone conversation. It doesn’t take long before you feel flustered and stressed because it requires your brain to constantly shift focus from A to B to C and back to A… or B. You are chronically distracted, much less performant, substantially less productive… and stressed that you feel overwhelmed.

What you’ve been doing is not multi-tasking (and it’s not productive): it’s FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out on the next email, next urgency, that keeps you in stress mode: fight-flight-freeze. FOMO is actually a sign of stress as your brain tells you to be on guard and check for the next threat… or grizzly. And FOMO doesn’t make you more productive – just more watchful, on your toes and easily distracted. And here is something else: stay in that mode long enough, often enough, and it rewires your brain into permanent FOMO mode. You progressively lose the ability to stay focused enough to accomplish anything.

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 threaten you escapes your attention.

So, what works? Start by taking control of your executive brain and tell it where it should focus, instead of letting your monkey brain run the show and jump all over the map. The average Canadian checks their phone 150 times a day: how about you? And how many times did you check your emails in the past hour? How about the chat on Teams? Skype?

Serial tasking will improve your productivity by placing you in the driver seat, and here is how to do it:

  1. Assign 30 minutes of focused space and time to do focused work without distractions.
  2. Turn off distractions, interruptions and technology such as sounds and banners on your phone, emails, etc. for 30 minutes.
  3. Turn on your phone timer for 15 minutes
  4. Assess what needs your full attention, right away: start with that and work continuously on this task for 15 minutes without allowing distractions. If this is your first time, practice makes it easier!
  5. If you think of something else you should be doing (that’s your monkey brain reminding you it’s waiting) write down a word or two to remind you, then get back to your task. You are in control.
  6. After 15 minutes, take a one-minute break – now is the time to check emails, chat and phone.
  7. Get ready for your second 15 minutes: either continue on your task or identify what comes next – you choose.
  8. You get good at what you practice – and you get really good at what you practice most. What will you practice: focused mode, or stress-based distracted mode? You decide.

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