Easier does it: Handling one thing at a time

Jeff Davidson

Everyday, virtually all workers engage some form of multitasking. This might feel temporarily satisfying, but multitasking cannot compete with the long term productivity of handling one thing at a time. To become a master of doing one thing at a time, pick an activity that you enjoy and where there's a high probability that you can engage in that activity without doing anything else. It could be driving your car with the radio off, reading in your favorite armchair without having any munchies. Here are a few tips to get you started:

-Start with small segments. If you're reading in your favorite armchair, promise yourself you'll go ten minutes without any munchies the first night. The second night go 15, then 20, and so forth. Eventually you may get to the point where you can read for an hour or more without having to resort to munchies. I know, you like to read and have munchies, but this is a practice run. Your ultimate goal will be to focus on work-related tasks one at a time, so that your concentration and quality of performance goes up, your anxiety level goes down, and the clock slows down.

-If you're trying to engage in reading, conceptual or breakthrough thinking, or creative problem solving, find as quiet a place as possible. The old argument you gave your parents when you were studying in high school – the one about the radio helping you to do better – is for the birds.

-If you're surrounded by various types of tasks competing for your attention, identify the one that's most important to tackle and stay with it until completion, or for as long as you can. If you're temporarily pulled away by something else, return to the important task at hand, and again stay with it to completion, or for as long as you can.

-If you are paid to handle a multiplicity of items competing for your attention, practice the ability to give at least short bursts of your full attention to the task at hand, before turning away to something else that begs your attention.

Fly Me

If you've ever noticed airline reservation attendants in the middle of a pressure situation, you know what I mean. Suppose the plane is going to be leaving in a matter of minutes, and several passengers have arrived late. Rather than trying to deal with three or four passengers at the same time, the ticket agent deals with one person and ticket situation at a time, often not even raising his head from the computer screen. He is ensuring the ticket will be correct once it's printed.

The same observation can be made of a bank teller, a bus driver, or a construction worker walking on scaffolding five stories above the ground. Indeed, when you look around, you find all kinds of people who are adept at doing one thing at a time. Here are more supporting steps:

-Initiate personal balancing techniques. Take deep breaths, stare out the window, envision yourself tackling the situation easily, or close your eyes for a few seconds before confronting the task again.

-Observe the people in your organization who concentrate well. What do they do different than the rest? Talk to them, learn from them.

-If it's necessary, bring earplugs to work. Use a sound screen if it helps.

-Let others in on your crusade to increase your powers of concentration.

When It's Okay to Double Up on Activities

You need to disengage in multitasking, far more than you know. However, there are times when it's perfectly permissible to do more than one thing at a time. Most of those times occur away from work. Obviously, at dinner with a friend or loved one you'll be talking and eating simultaneously. Generally, it's okay to drive and listen to the radio, CDs, or your iPod. The exception is when the decibel level is so high that your concentration is impaired.

The issue becomes foggy when it comes to using a cell phone or smoking. Both have the potential to diminish your concentration and increase your probability of being involved in an accident. Some people argue that cell phones come with speakers, so you can hold a phone conversation while keeping both hands on the wheel. The problem with being engaged in conversation and performing other tasks is that speaking requires far more brain activity than the passive act of listening to the radio or a CD player. If you insist on engaging in conversations with your cell phone while in the car, perhaps it's best for you to pull off to the side of the road.

Exercising with an iPod is not terrible, but it's not the greatest. I was at my health club recently and was bemused to see a lady who was not only on the stair climber with an iPod, but who also pulled out a book and proceeded to read it. I almost asked her if she wanted to chew some gum to see if she could do four things at once.

The physical exercises in which you engage are ideally their own reward. Still, I know many people who use workout exercise DVDs, or get on a stationary bike while watching a movie or sports on television. It seems to work well for them, so there's probably no real harm.

You don't need to be entertained or as constantly active as you may think. The more often you can get into the habit of doing one thing at a time, the better you'll do, and the more time will slow down for you.