In this age of what's been called the "info-Blitzkrieg," many of us work at computers with multiple browsers open. We flit between email, Facebook, phone calls, and perhaps the occasional face-to-face encounter.
In my job as a reporter, I always assumed this do-it-all-at-once approach to work made me more effective. But then my friend Janice Marturano, a former executive at General Mills who now teaches mindfulness to corporate leaders, told me about studies that show multitasking is actually a huge waste of time and productivity.
"Multitasking is a computer-derived term," she said. "We have one processor. We can't do it."
In fact, heavy multitaskers (me) develop habits of mind that make it harder to focus when we really need it.
Janice recommends something radical: do only one thing at a time. When you're on the phone, be on the phone. When you're in a meeting, be there. Set aside an hour to check your email, and then shut off your computer and focus on the task at hand.
I've been trying, in fits and starts, to apply this advice, and found that when I do unitask, I get much more done. For what it's worth, there's also evidence that doing one thing at a time makes you happier than when your mind is wandering and your attention is fractured.
The good news is that you can undo the bad habits of mind created by years of multitasking.
Meditation has been shown to boost focus as well as overall wellbeing. (For simple meditation instructions, check out my 3-Step Brain Hack for Happiness.) In fact, I've recently written a book about how a skeptical news anchor became a meditator, called 10% Happier.
For staying calm at the office, you don't have to sit cross-legged for hours at a time. Janice Marturano recommends taking short, strategic pauses throughout the day. So, for example, instead of fidgeting or tapping your fingers while your computer boots up, try to watch your breath coming in and going out for a few minutes. When driving, turn off the radio and just feel your hands on the wheel. Or when walking between meetings, leave your phone in your pocket and just notice the sensations of your legs moving.
|Don't Force It|
When you've got a problem to solve, what's your approach? If you're like me, you get all your colleagues into a room and try to brainstorm your way to an answer. Or you pace around the office, and swarm the problem with obsessive thinking. But there's science to suggest that pausing can be a key ingredient in creativity and innovation.
Studies show the best way to engineer an epiphany is to work hard, focus, research, and think about a problem -- and then let go. Do something else. That doesn't necessarily mean meditate, but do something that relaxes and distracts you; let your unconscious mind go to work, making connections from disparate parts of the brain.
As counterintuitive as this may seem (at least to me), the best solutions often come when you allow yourself to get comfortable with ambiguity. This is why people have aha moments in the shower. It's why Don Draper from "Mad Men," when asked how he comes up with his great slogans, said he spends all day thinking, and then goes to the movies.
For more information on Dan's book, click here.