Multi-tasking madness

Today I’ve been thinking about this article which I read in last week’s Stylist magazine which claimed that, rather than being a productive use of our time, multi-tasking can actually make us less productive – and can even be damaging to our health.

According to the article, when we stop what we’re doing and redirect our attention to something else – for example if we stop writing an email to check a text message – the first task can actually end up taking twice as long as it would otherwise have done. What’s more, when we’re interrupted from a task it can take a whopping 25 minutes to get back to our original task – talk about a waste of time!

Multi-tasking, therefore, isn’t really doing multiple tasks at once but rather switching between tasks, which, apparently, makes us more stressed and less able to focus – in all areas of our lives. And speaking as someone who falls firmly into the multi-tasking camp – I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve usually got at least three to do lists in my line of sight at any one time, all of which I’m simultaneously attempting to complete something from – I have to say it does.

I’ve always thought that skim reading emails whilst heading off pushy sales calls was a genius way to save time, but when the email’s been sent and the sales call closed down I’ll often struggle to remember what either was about. In fact, I’m going to make a confession – just a moment ago I saw an email had popped into my inbox and switched my attention completely to that. And you know what? When I first came back to this and tried to remember what was in the email it completely escaped me!

So, it’s a fact; multi-tasking does make me feel stressed, and if the example I just gave is anything to go by it may even be damaging my cognitive health. But how can I extricate myself from this cycle? They (whoever ‘they’ are) say the first step of recovery is to acknowledge you have a problem, in which case I’m already on that bottom rung.

From now on when I think I’m being super-organised by trying to do multiple things at once I’m going to check myself and realise I’m just working myself up into a perpetual state of anxiety. I shall take a step back, prioritise the items on my list(s) and work through them in a logical and methodical way. When I start each new task I’ll put my mobile phone on silent and turn off the alerts on my email, only allowing myself to check them once that particular task is finished…Hang on, this is all getting a bit complicated. Maybe I should make a list. Will someone pass the Post-its?

Question: When shouldn’t you multi-task?
Answer: When you’ve been drinking cocktails on San Antonio beach in Ibiza all afternoon and MTV approaches you to record a message for their viewers….Yes, we did, and yes, it was aired. Repeatedly. Though thankfully I don’t have Sky.

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Doing less better (starting with cuddles)

It was a novel feeling waking without Monday blues today; the knowledge that from now on Mondays are my own time to pursue various writing interests and freelance commissions has certainly put a spring in my step. But that’s not to say it’s going to be easy – I’m already feeling the pressure to cram more into my solitary freelance day than is feasible, and I know if I want to be “a success” (whatever that means) I’m going to have to be selective with what I take on. Tempting as it is to commit to lots of small commissions, I fear in doing that I’ll lose the essence of what I want to achieve. Whilst money is of course a consideration, ultimately I’d just like to get to a point where I’m writing for enjoyment and getting paid a reasonable sum in return. Is that too much to ask? I think not.

But in the short term I know I must be realistic. A good friend who I went to visit this afternoon (for cuddles with her gorgeous son – see pic. I have been working today – honest!) wisely told me not to expect to earn anything from freelancing for at least the first few months, because it would take that long to get set up and work out what I want to specialise in. And I know she’s right. I need to play the long game and not get distracted by the shiny nuggets of £20 commissions to write blogs for people too lazy to do it themselves. What reward is there in that, after all? To establish oneself as a professional in any field one must first learn to value themselves, and never is this more important than when becoming a freelancer. If you don’t back yourself who else will? It’s vital to stay strong and confident in the knowledge that your talent will shine through and it will do exactly that – leave those who value themselves less highly than you to take on the menial commissions and keep your eye on the prize.

My old boss’s motto was “do fewer things better,” and it’s stayed with me over the years because it’s great advice. Whenever things get on top of me and I feel I’m juggling too many balls in my life, I remember the mantra and try to strip it back until it feels more manageable. Because there are always things you can cut back on to make time for what’s important – if what’s important is really as important as you say it is.

Image

Remember way back in January when I started this blog and I posted a pic of my pregnant friend at her baby shower? Well this little treasure is the result – and I love the bones of him 🙂

Productivity and pressure

Today’s mot du jour (said in a sophisticated French accent, naturellement) is “productive.” It’s 11.07am as I type this and already I’ve run five kilometres on the treadmill, sifted through the reams of crap accumulated in my desk drawers during my sixteen months here (binning most of it and saving a few nuggets that may be of use later on), applied for my New York visa, ordered both my travel money and insurance and made an exhaustively comprehensive to do list covering virtually every remaining minute of my working day (and indeed beyond, as this evening I’ll be helping my boyfriend move into his new place by lugging a massive suitcase from one end of London to the other in the name of love – or lunacy, I’m not sure which).

In short, I’m in the midst of a necessary manic phase, which has got me thinking about the nature of pressure. I don’t know about you but I have a love hate relationship with pressure. When I’m under huge amounts of it I panic; my hands sweat, my head pounds, my breathing is shallow. Sometimes (too often) I turn into a whimpering, gibbering mess in the corner, claiming between sobs that it’s all too much, I just can’t do it. But then a funny thing happens; I remind myself to breathe, drag myself out of the corner, put the kettle on and sit back down at my desk. And then I simply carry on. And you know what? If it wasn’t for the pressure bearing down on me I often wouldn’t complete the task I’d set out to achieve in the first place. In other words, much as it stresses me out, pressure is an essential part of my productivity. I work better with it than without it – and that’s a fact.

At school and university I could often be found at 2am the night before an important exam, cramming every bit of information I possibly could into my brain. It wasn’t that I hadn’t bothered to revise (well, it wasn’t always that), I just couldn’t focus properly until I was under sufficient pressure to be able to block everything else out. I’ll never forget the week before my dissertation was due when it dawned on me I really had left it too late, and I had to pull out every last stop to deliver on time. My body’s reaction to that particular period of pressure was somewhat extreme – I blacked out whilst hyperventilating over the choice of finishing my dissertation and attending a party. Needless to say I eventually (and sensibly, as wasn’t always customary in those days) opted to stay in and finish the dissertation, and thankfully went on to clinch an upper second degree as a result.

In today’s society pressure is, whether we like it or not, all around us. We feel pressure to succeed in every aspect of our lives, from our jobs to our relationships and even in our hobbies. Even those who seem, on the face of it, to be at the top of their game – the company CEO, for example – are under constant pressure to deliver better, smarter, cheaper. But the reason such people get to the top of their game is because they’ve managed to get a handle on the pressure and make it work to their advantage. They’ve understood that often pressure is a good thing which provides a necessary catalyst for change (if you don’t think change is a good thing, see yesterday’s post which, I hope, will change your mind – geddit?).

Now I’m afraid I really must be off, I’ve got a million and one things to do before the day is out and my hands are getting clammy….

This photo shows me at a time when I was under considerable pressure – to host and deliver a successful end of expedition ceremony in Borneo in 2011. You can tell from the sweat on my brow I was nervous (and also brown – so brown, sigh…), but fortunately my effort was passable and the event was a success. See? Pressure in action. I rest my case.