In a world of multitasking and constant distractions –from the ping of texts and emails to everyone having to wear more hats at work than they used to– time management is one of the biggest challenges. We might feel like we’re doing more — and, in a way, we are — but we’re actually get less done in the process. So, is it possible in this day and age to streamline your work style, be more productive and get back some time in your day to focus on big picture stuff, strategy and brainstorming, all of which will make you more effective at your job? Yes, says Julie Morgenstern, a productivity expert and bestselling author of five books including Time Management from the Inside Out. Dubbed the “queen of putting people’s lives in order” by USA Today, Morgenstern has made it her life’s mission to help people get more out of everyday and find focus in their lives, both at work and at home. This month marks the launch of her new Circa Balanced Life Planner, a paper-based system for the digital age, designed to help people make good decisions about where to spend their time. Sign us up!
Morgenstern spent some of her valuable time talking to us about the email addiction epidemic, why being pulled in a million different directions and always being connected is bad for the brain, and sharing some great advice for how to manage your time more effectively this year.
Why is multitasking ineffectual?
It has been scientifically demonstrated that the brain cannot effectively or efficiently switch between tasks, so you lose time. It takes four times longer to recognize new things so you’re not saving time; multitasking actually costs time. You also lose time because you often make mistakes. If you’re multitasking and you send an email and accidentally “reply all” and the person you were talking about is on the email, it’s a big mistake. In addition, studies have shown that we have a much lower retention rate of what we learn when multitasking, which means you could have to redo the work or you may not do the next task well because you forgot the information you learned. Everyone’s complaining of memory issues these days – they’re symptoms of this multitasking epidemic. Then, of course, there’s the rudeness factor, which doesn’t help develop strong relationships with others.
Have distractions multiplied in recent years and, if so, how?
One is obviously the smartphone, which has made it so that you cannot get away. There are no safe zones where you can actually unplug. You feel like you’re busy and doing something – it’s a chemical addiction. There are so many things we can do through our screens now – stay in touch with friends, do business, entertainment, watch Netflix, do research, create a Pinterest board. The volume of tasks in our lives that we can now do through a screen rather than tactilely has increased exponentially. It’s more than just email. It’s all the things we can do on screens.
Why is it so important to minimize interruptions and distractions in today’s world?
It’s important to use all parts of your brain instead of only one. That will help reduce mistakes and increase the satisfaction of engagement. The human being desires a sense of control and fulfillment and I’m seeing a swing. People of all ages are reaching a tipping point and need a ”screen break.” There’s comfort in the fact that the human spirit is saying “this is simply too much.”
What are three ways in which people can work smarter?
1) Build “screen breaks” into your schedule, both at work and at home. The length should be a min of 1-3 hours at a time so you can engage in a deeper and different way on problems, studying, writing, thinking, talking, etc.
2) Avoid email and all screens for the first and last hour of the day so that you wake up and engage in a deeper, more focused activity of some sort. It’s easier to start deep and come up to the shallow. And at night, sleep studies show that being in front of a computer screen is an energy source and it stimulates rather than relaxes.
3) If you schedule your day between meetings and action to-do’s, plan every day plus tomorrow and the next day, it makes it easier not to get distracted. It’s best to keep track of everything in a single system – from meetings to to-do’s, both personal and professional – which will help you focus and prioritize. If you plan what to do and review it the night before, you’re less likely to get sucked into mindless distractions. The more specific you are, the more likely you are to combat distractions. Knock out the big things and the toughest stuff early in the day so you have the rest of the day to catch up with the buzz, the urgency, the distractions and the little stuff. Take advantage of the morning to complete the tasks that require more energy and discipline. If you divide your day in half, that works for most people.
If people are daunted by adding several new rules to their lives (like trying to accomplish too many New Year’s resolutions and then giving up on all of them), what’s the one thing that is either most important or easiest to do?
The number one most powerful thing you can do to rediscover the power of focus is to control email use – scheduling when and how often you check your email. If you promise yourself that you’re going to check email only four times a day, between 9am-6pm, that will really help.
How do you advise that people “addicted” to email and social media break the habit of always checking their mobile devices?
All of these distractions are mindless, so you might want to give yourself a little mantra or phrase that gets them to refocus or resist distractions. One idea is “Leave it!” — which is a dog-training term — or ask yourself, “Is this the best time to do this?” You can ask yourself or stop yourself when you feel the pull of a distraction. Also, when you’re having a screen break, don’t have the device nearby. When you’re supposed to be working on a report, turn off the dinger on your email or put the device away altogether. Track this for a month and see how well you’re doing at taking screen breaks and accomplishing bigger tasks. Assess each day how you did at it. You could even create an alarm every two hours to check your email.
Often, people try to change their habits, and they can’t get through a day without constantly checking email, so they give up. They didn’t realize how addicted they were. People who succeed give it a few days of discomfort, like a drug withdrawal, and then they can get through it. Sometimes people stay on track until a crisis and then they forget to go back. Overall, if you can make sure to give yourself time away from your “screens,” you will be more productive and fulfilled.