Mixing Multitasking and Focusing

Recently, I wrote an article entitled Convenience and Expenses: Why Time Management Really Matters, where I explored the connection between personal finance and time management and I promised some follow-up articles on specific elements of time management that connected deeply with personal finance. Here’s the first of these articles.

People can’t spread their attention fully between two tasks. There’s no better proof of this than the unsafe driving of people while they’re texting. You can’t focus on both texting and driving at the same time. Sure, you might be able to get your text sent before an accident occurs on the road, but your driving was quite simply less safe while you were texting (and your text probably wasn’t perfect, either).

The reality is that our minds do not handle two simultaneous tasks very well. The reason is that it takes us a small amount of time to actually switch from one task to another. When we’re trying to do two tasks at the same time, we’re actually switching back and forth rapidly between those tasks, causing a bit of a delay with each switch where we regain our focus on the newly current task, only to rip our attention away again in a moment or two.

Instead, we excel at sequential tasks. When we focus on one task for a while, reach completion of that task (or a milestone), then switch to another task, we’re at our best.

At the same time, there are some tasks that are more easily interrupted than others. When I’m writing a draft of an article for The Simple Dollar, I get it done most efficiently when I am not interrupted during that first draft. I need to write it straight through, from beginning to end.

When I’m reading a book, it’s easy to just stop for a moment and stick in a bookmark. If I’m watching a movie, I can easily pause it. If I’m folding laundry, I can just drop the item I’m working on back in the basket for a moment while I handle something else.

Before I start a task, I try to assess how interruptible it is. If a task isn’t interruptible, I make sure I have a block of time that isn’t going to be interrupted and I shut down distractions. I turn off my cell phone, close the door, and so on.

If a task is interruptible, then I usually try to multitask it with a passive task.

What’s a passive task? A passive task is anything you can successfully complete while giving it very little attention. In some cases, passive tasks have portions where you can give it no attention at all, but then they’ll demand attention at the beginning or end of the task.

For example, folding laundry is basically a passive task. Jogging on a treadmill is basically a passive task. Making tea? A passive task. Putting dishes away? A passive task. Brushing my teeth? A passive task. All of these things require very little focus during the bulk of the time involved.

These tasks usually put other constraints on you. Folding laundry, for example, requires that you be sitting or standing somewhere with open space around you to place clothes. Jogging on a treadmill requires you to be on a treadmill. Making tea requires that you be within earshot of the kettle.

If you can find another interruptible task that works within the constraints of the passive task, then you can multitask without losing quality.

Folding laundry? Camp out on the couch and catch up on one of your favorite television series. Jogging on the treadmill? Stick a large-print book or an e-reader on there (I generally can’t read small print while jogging) and read while getting into shape. Making tea? Unload the dishwasher while you’re waiting for it to boil. Unloading dishes? Listen to an audiobook while you’re unloading. Waiting at the doctor’s office? Read a book while you’re waiting.

The thing to remember here is that the goal is to maximize your time for uninterruptible tasks that require your focus. You can do this by stacking together tasks that are passive and tasks that are interruptible in the rest of your time.

Here’s a brief list of some of the passive tasks that I tackle during the day:
+ I walk or jog on a treadmill.
+ I fold laundry.
+ I prepare food (which is often full of periods of waiting).
+ I clean a room.
+ I brush my teeth.

(A note: I don’t consider driving to be a passive activity. I find audiobooks to be too much of a distraction mentally when driving.)

Here’s a brief list of some of the common interruptible tasks I pull out when I’m engaged in other passive tasks:
+ I take notes or brainstorm using a voice recorder or voice recording software.
+ I read a book or listen to an audiobook.
+ I do basic bodyweight exercises, like push-ups or squats.
+ I put dishes away.
+ I sort mail.

The constraints of the passive tasks might make some of the interruptible tasks harder to do and vice versa, but there are many pairings that work well. I’ve verbally brainstormed, read books, and watched television while walking on a treadmill. I’ve listened to audiobooks and did some basic exercising while cleaning the living room. I’ve put laundry away while brushing my teeth. I’ve put many dishes away while waiting for water to boil.

Stacking these interruptible and passive tasks together saves me a tremendous amount of time. That time I save is usually devoted to the things I don’t want to interrupt, like playing a game of Mice and Mystics with my children.

How can you apply this idea in your own life? Look for tasks that are interruptible or passive and try to figure out ways to combine them. Doing this can help you move through your to-do list at a surprising rate, leaving you more time for important things that you don’t want to interrupt, like starting a side business or building personal relationships.

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