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How to Get a Lot of Different Things Done Without Going Crazy

Strategies and goals

ducks_in_a_rowAs I write this it’s Saturday, the beginning of the first mostly-free weekend I’ve had in about a month. Because scheduled things take up almost all of my time during the week, I’ve amassed a list of about 30 tasks, large and small, that I’d like to get done this weekend. They probably won’t all get done, because there are only so many hours in the day, and that’s OK as long as I make good use of my time, enjoy the weekend, and get the most important ones taken care of. The question is, what’s the best way to do that?

I’ve gotten better and better at juggling multiple tasks over my lifetime, especially since I started intensively learning about the psychology of self-motivation, but it wasn’t until I came across a section on attention in molecular neurobiologist John Medina’s book Brain Rules that I understood why I’ve been getting better at managing a lot of tasks, and how to improve even more.

When Medina talks about attention, he describes how we change our focus from one thing to another: for each separate activity, we have to send a message throughout our brain telling it to first search out, then activate all the neural resources we have for that particular activity, letting the resources that have been active for whatever we were just doing go dormant. This is called “rule activation,” because as we learn, our brain developes specialized rules for how to act in different circumstances. Rule activation takes several tenths of a second, Medina says, and we can only activate rules for one task at a time. (What about multitasking? That’s a special case, and I go into it in more detail in the post coming up on Wednesday, “How to Multitask, and When Not To.”)

So why should this switchover matter? After all, if our brain can change modes in less than a second, we should be able to move from one thing to another with only a tiny hesitation. And that is possible–but only after we decide what we’re going to do and focus. Until we decide, until we’re certain about what we want to do and start to focus our attention on it, our brains don’t switch over: we’re in a holding pattern, still hanging onto the tools for the last thing we did and not sure what the next thing is. Just thinking about doing a thing is not the same as being ready to do that thing, even though we can very quickly move from thinking to committing if we try.

In other words, in order to get something done, we have to choose one and only one thing to concentrate on, discarding uncertainty and distractions. The problem with this is that our lives don’t present us with one and only one thing to do at a time: often we’ll have several things that need our attention, all of them important, with new ones coming in all the time. How do we reconcile our single-focus brain with a wide variety of tasks? We need to narrow our focus to only one thing at a time, and to do that we need to temporarily dismiss everything else. We also need to have an easy way to move on to the next thing once we’re done the current task.

We often don’t do this. Often we start one task, shift to another task, check e-mail, remember something we wanted to get out of a drawer, get up to get it, get involved in a conversation, forget what we got up to fetch … in other words, we let our attention shift from one thing to another, requiring a complete brain reorientation every time.

The discipline of getting a lot of different things done, then, is a discipline of choosing one thing and ignoring everything else. If you don’t know what the one thing to choose is, the answer is easy: focus your attention on prioritizing your next selection. Putting the extra attention in the choice makes it easier to focus once you move on to doing the thing you selected, because you’ve already had the chance to consider and reject all the other things that you could be doing for that moment.

To get an extra boost of productivity from there, it’s sometimes possible to keep a queue of maybe up to three or four things in your mind. As soon as you’re done the first one, focus fully on the next, and so on. This can be fluid: you can change the order before you start doing something, but once you start, try to stick with it to the end unless things change drastically. Once you get your focus on something else, it’s not always easy to bring it back, so each time you focus your attention, focus it completely and confidently, knowing that you’ve chosen the object of your attention carefully. The secret to doing a lot of different things is to not try to do them all at once.

This process of focusing isn’t just efficient: it’s relaxing. What’s stressful about having a thousand things to do is having to deal with all of them at once. By prioritizing, you really are dealing with all of them while still freeing yourself from having to think about all of them at once.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for me to schedule this post and put my attention in exactly one other, entirely different place.

Photo by Jonathan Caves

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Kaizan  •  Sep 1, 2009 @4:44 am

    This is great advice. I often need to take a short break in order to switch my mind on to a different task. When it’s practical, I find the best thing to do between tasks is either a short walk, or a short nap.

    But I think your suggestion of, once you choose a task stick to it, is very important. When I am only half engaged in a task, because I am thinking about another task, that is the worst way to do things.

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