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?”

 

 

 

Freedom to Focus

(The seventh post in a series on working at home.)

Working at home is less like work. Here I am at my standing  desk with an iced green tea, electronic music keeping me alert, laundry in the dryer, fresh air coming in my window, and freedom to wear my dorkiest T shirt.

Working at home gives you more control over your environment. This means more than just getting the laundry done while I’m learning some lines. On a deeper level, it helps me not to live so much in reaction to other people. I’m easily distracted by the conversations, the needs, the moods, the problems, of other people.

When I’m working at home, I feel like that girl in “The Incredibles” with her invisible force field surrounding her – I can keep out what would otherwise attack me. I plan better, write faster, think more clearly. I have less anxiety.Image result for incredibles force field

Of course there are pitfalls. There’s no one there to dissuade you from eating the whole cake, or binge watching Netflix all afternoon. We need to know ourselves  and choose what environment works best. Some people are carried along by the energy of others working alongside them, and need the structure of a workplace. Some people need a mix of both; working at home one or two days a week.

Being home-based keeps me focused – not only on what I’m doing but why I’m doing it. Built into the day are not only breaks to eat or go for a walk or tend to something around the house. I build in breaks to get mentally and spiritually recharged.

In the morning I read the Bible and pray. Then I make a list of what to get done that day. I take time to think about whether I’ve made the list too long. (How often we set ourselves up to fail!)

I ask myself it I’m being driven or compulsive in my choice of tasks. Do I really need to get all that done today, or do I just want to cross stuff off a list so I can feel competent? Am I thinking about what’s most important, or just being driven by the expectations of other people? You have the freedom to soul search when you set your own schedule.

Then I try to group tasks in categories – for example, in one day I might take a two hour chunk to do detail business – checking and sending messages, scheduling meetings, updating contacts. Then after a break I may take unbroken time for writing or long term planning and not respond to any messages at all.

It often helps to take a break between tasks that need different types of energy. I’ll exercise before diving into lots of detail work because I don’t like  it and I need to be energized to make myself  dive in. Before writing I may read a post or a chapter about the writing process, something inspiring. I’ll look at a Better Homes and Gardens to get me in the mood to clean my house, and watch a video about urban ministry if I need to get motivated to recruit for our church’s tutoring program.

Our quality of life is so much richer when we know why we’re doing what we’re doing, and we have the freedom to do it at our own pace, with breaks that let us refuel and refocus. Working at home often makes it easier to do our best and take care of ourselves at the same time.

 

Don’t Be Too Available

(Third in a series of posts about working from home.)

Not everyone gets that working from home is still work. Many people who would never dream of bugging you at a corporate office or a factory floor won’t hesitate to call you for a chat at your home office, or expect you to reply to their texts right away.

It’s hard enough to keep ourselves on track when working at home; being derailed by family and friends can be overwhelming. IMG_20170607_171452142

It’s also hard for those around us to know when we are or aren’t working, unless we give some clear signals. This whole area of setting boundaries is really key. How we do it differs with what our set up is and the kind of work we’re doing, but it’s really hard to work at home without boundaries. We can’t get stuff done, and we’re likely to take out our frustration on loved ones, which is not cool. Boundaries protect everyone. Here are some ideas to consider:

  1. 1. Having a defined physical work space helps; preferably behind doors that close. Then tell people that when the door’s closed, you need privacy. An open door can mean, “Talk to me if you need something, but not just for fun.” If you don’t have a private space, you can leave earphones on when you don’t want to be disturbed, or wear you ‘get lost’ hat, or whatever it takes.IMG_20170607_171540584
  2. Set some regular work hours, then people can get into a habit of leaving you alone during those times. It’s also important to honor the times you set for being available, especially with kids. They’ll have an easier time getting used to your off-limits time if they know they can count on a game at lunch time, or an evening when you’re not constantly checking your phone.
  3. Consider separating your message and social media feeds, using some for work, the rest for private life. Then you’re not tempted to watch concert videos when you meant to check customer orders.
  4. Don’t tell everyone you work from home. Not everyone needs to know.
  5. Get used to missing out on some good moments. If you want your privacy to be taken seriously, you can’t jump ship every time you hear people laughing in the next room, or expect them to tell you when the movie starts.
  6. Don’t feel the need to be constantly responding to notifications, unless you’re a stockbroker or something. I told my kids if they really needed me, to phone rather than text, then gave them each their own ring tone. Then I could dive deep into a project and ignore everything, until I heard that Lord of the Rings theme, or the R2D2 bleeps. ( Zedge has fun ring tones.)

Lots of people swear they do just fine with multitasking, and mixing work with every other part of life, but more and more people are discovering that an interrupt-driven workday is less productive. 

Over the long-haul, a defined work space,  a set work time and some methods of reducing interruptions make working at home a lot more viable.

Habits Give Shape to the Day

(Second in a series on working from home.)

A day is precious; we can never get it back. Even if we live to be say, 80, we have less than 30,000 of them. A day is a story – given shape with a good beginning, a build towards resolution, a satisfying ending. Image result for story arc

Everyone, but especially those of us who drive our own workday from home, need habits that give it shape, meaning and energy.

In the same way that bad habits sabotage us, good ones carry us effortlessly in the right direction. Formed within a few months, they serve us well the rest of our lives.  Most of us can brush our teeth, for instance, without an agony of will or effort.

Given the choice, I would spend the greater part of each day in bed, alternately napping, reading novels and eating chocolates. Here are some habits that have led to other outcomes:

A Good Beginning:

Getting up at the same time each day is a really good idea. If you get up when others around you do, it takes less effort. My teenagers don’t need me in the morning any more, but it’s good to see them, join the bustle, ride their energy to get going.

Eating something that won’t cause you to die young is another good idea. More on food in another post.

Focusing mind and spirit on what’s good and true feeds our work as tangibly as our bowl of granola. As a Christian, I read a few pages of the Bible and then some other good book. Ann Voskamp’s “Broken Way” is my latest favorite. This is the best time of the day for me, taking in energy before the demands of the day kick in.

Goals for the Middle:

Everyone needs to walk the line between legalism and aimlessness when it comes to schedules. I hate routine, but without a list for the week and then a list for the day, I will literally stand in the middle of the room and pivot in circles – at home there is something to do everywhere you look.

Some people use fancy apps, some people put sticky notes on the wall, but the challenge is to pick a system and work it. Some need this to do enough work, others need it to make themselves stop.

Many professionals who work remotely tend to work themselves into the ground, equating hours put in with competence and success. Actually, after less than fifty hours a week, the returns sharply diminish. For years I set myself up for discouragement with lists that were just too long. That was dumb. Now I write lists I can finish and I feel like a rock star.

An Ending you can Live With:

I know a writer who finishes each day by reading out loud to his wife. Way to go, Mitch. An actress I tour with catches up with friends online till she starts to nod off. Another friend likes to play Spider Solitaire, whatever that is. She told me the other day she thinks she should be reading at night instead. I disagreed. I think we need to be able to look forward to doing whatever we want to do at the end of the day, provided that’s not injecting heroin, or eating 30 Twinkies – you know, something not destructive.

If my solitaire-loving friend thinks she should read more, then that is a discipline to be added to the work  list, not something she should make herself do when she finally has a few minutes for herself.

Finally, as we close the book on the day, it really helps to review what we accomplished and what we’re grateful for. Those are great thoughts to sleep on.