Shift-tasking is the new multi-tasking.

Multi-tasking seems to be a requirement in society lately, but it only works well when the tasks we’re doing can acceptably be done less adequately, or are so habitual they can be done on auto-pilot. For instance, we can send a casual text while waiting in line for lunch. However, sending an important email, while out for lunch with colleagues, can lead to weird auto-correct typos and nasty looks from our hungry co-workers. We often think that we can quickly switch from one task to the next, and back again, but the mental energy those transitions require, adds up to a considerable amount of wasted time.

Instead of splitting our focus to juggle important duties somewhat simultaneously, it can be more effective to focus fully on one task for a period of time – for most people that’s about 45 minutes – then take a short break, and shift our brain power to focus fully on the second task for another 45-minute sprint. For example, we could choose to focus on emails for 45 minutes with no interruptions. Then quit our email application and take a physical and mental break, such as a simple stretch, or check off a 2-minute item from our to-do list, or perhaps pre-emptively connect with people who are likely to try to interrupt us later in the day. Next, get back in the productivity zone for the second undertaking.

Always leave a small period of time at the start and the end of an activity to shift focus. Sure, we’d all like to have days where we can concentrate on one responsibility without feeling pulled in many directions, but for many people’s time-crunched reality, shift-tasking is a solution that allows for focused productivity for a realistic amount of time, and that optimizes our brains for massive output.

Take action: Let your co-workers know you don’t want interruptions by putting out a “do not disturb” signal. If you can’t close a door, big headphones are a good sign (they can be silent, it’s a visual clue). And try using your phone as a countdown timer, setting it on your desk so people will know when you’re available again, without asking when they should come back.

Inspired by David DiSalvo’s book, What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite.

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