Multitasking is Overrated

(Eighth in a series on working from home.)

Image result for multitaskingSo, am I a loser if I can’t take in a lecture, text a friend, and check my email all at the same time? Everyone else seems to be doing that.

I’ve always had an instinctive sense that when I try to do more than one thing, concentration falters and I suffer an angsty discomfort with no good result.

Turns out that communication research is in my  court, and it has been established since the middle of the 20th century that divided attention leads to compromised  retention. A Cornell study repeatedly demonstrated  that students who browsed on their laptops during lectures performed worse on tests than their classmates who kept them closed. (Hembrooke &Gay, 2003)

Apparently, we’re not actually capable of focusing on more than one  thing at a time, and energy is lost in the effort of the switch.

I often suspect that I am on the receiving end of multitasking innefficiency.  I’ll get emails in which only one of my two questions is addressed, even though I wrote “2 Questions” on the subject line, and numbered the questions in bold.

Or someone on the phone takes about two seconds too long to reply. You can just see them peeling their eyes off some screen long enough to formulate a minimal answer. I often get the sense that people are half-listening or skim-reading.

Worst of all is to be in the sole company of someone who is so into their phone that you don’t feel fully visible to them – like one of those holograms on the Disney Haunted House ride. Many of us who work at home are in danger of preferring the company of an operating system to those pesky flesh-and-blood humans, who are so much harder to control.

My guess is that these last few decades will go down in history as the age of social geekiness, before norms were established around the use of technology that kept people from living on desert islands of screen addiction.

“Remember how dad used to check his phone as soon as it pinged, even when he was reading us a story?” a scarred 30-something  will ask his sister.

“Yeah, and mom never actually saw us kick a goal, ’cause she was always texting,” she’ll reply, and  they’ll shake their heads at the bad old days.

Before that day, there will be nation-wide 12-step tech-addiction meetings. People will stand and announce, “Hi, I’m (Aiden/Emma/Liam) and I’m a techaholic, and my life has become unmanageable.” Everyone will put their devices in the middle of a circle, and will courageously endure the agony of separation in an odd but comforting environment of human support.

To avoid all that, it helps to plan our work in blocks, where we decide ahead of time to stay focused on one  thing. Julie Morgenstern, who wrote, “Time Management from the  Inside Out,” advises that we build screen breaks into our schedules, starting the day with one at least an hour long, where we’re free to do deeper, focused work before getting distracted.

That sounds like a good beginning towards living in such a way that we value people more than things, and work from an intentional center rather than a reactionary swatting at interruptions all day long.

Maybe when we look up from our screens every so often to rest our eyes, we should also take a few deep breaths, and ask ourselves, “Am I paying attention to who and what matters most?”

 

 

 

Working at Home Survival Guide

Working at home – it’s the best and the worst. It opens the way for flexibility, creativity, self-care and family-care. It also offers every opportunity for us to self-sabotage via isolation, distraction, sloth, lack of structure, lack of accountability, lack of support, unlimited refrigerator access – you name it.

More people than ever are home-based – freelancers, businessoffice-work-1149087_640 startups, people caring for kids or aged parents, retired people, people with companies that let them work remotely. Whether you are doing paid work, caring for others, or living out your retirement, we all have work to do, and home-based work means finding your own way to structure and channel time and energy.

The next seven posts will address this challenge. I long for those of us working at home to flourish without feeling trapped, stuck, overwhelmed or left-out.

I remember  when I tried to write freelance from home in my twenties. I would stare at the dark blue wall of my basement office for embarrasingly long chunks of time, trying to squeeze words out of my circular thoughts to feed the empty page. I fought drowsiness from sitting alone in a dark room and had more than my fair share of naps. Suffice to say I did not get rich quick.

Years later, I’m better at working from home. I juggle caring for teenagers, helping my parents, writing for this website and freelance writing, running kids’ programs, acting in a theater company, and keeping my house somewhat clean. Most days end with the feeling that I have done about the right amount of work at the right tasks.

It was not easy to get to this point. People who are swept every day into the energy of a company or institution, carried by the bustle and the structure and the hierarchy; they don’t know how hard it is to get up and keep doing the right thing all day long when no one else is watching.

I think the first thing we need to do is recognize that working alone is hard. We are social creatures. People left alone go crazy.  Just read the solitary confinement studies.  Research  also reveals higher stress and insomnia levels among people who work remotely. If you have been trying to work productively and successfully from home, you have probably had some struggles. This does not make you a loser. It makes you a human.

So let’s begin simply by celebrating what we get done every day.  This will rarely be award-winning. Nevertheless, review your day when work is over, and acknowledge what you did. For example:

  • I wrote a tough report I had been putting off.
  • I helped my relative with cancer to visit the doctor and have lunch in a park.
  • I taught my kids for four hours without yelling at anyone.
  • I made ten cold-calls, even though I was rejected on the first seven and the last two.

The key is to concentrate on work done, not just results. Making ten cold calls is impressive, even if only one pans out. Maybe even especially when only one pans out.

Celebrate the day’s work with some small ritual that is good for you and helps you detach – a journal entry and a walk outside rather than, say, a triple scotch.

When we work at home, there’s no one else to encourage or compliment us. So let’s do that for ourselves.