Lost in Transition
“There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.”
Once upon a time, I had a great attention span. I could sit and focus on something for hours at a time and not feel like I had to be off doing something else.
Then, I had kids.
After that, I trained myself to fit things in where I could. In some ways, this has been a great learning experience … I’m able to change focus quickly, and I’m able to make a fast assessment of what kinds of tasks I can complete when faced with a specific time frame.
But, it’s also hindered my ability to focus for long periods. Nowadays, part of my mind always seems to be planning what I should be doing next. Because of that, even when I do have bigger blocks of time, I tend to bounce from activity to activity, task to task.
Lately, I’ve been practicing dedicating bigger blocks of time to single activities or projects. (My kids have both reached an age where they understand this, which is why it’s now possible … most days.) And, I’ve discovered something.
I lose a lot of time to transitions.
That actually makes sense and doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is how high the cost of transitions actually is. Every time you switch activities, your brain has to go through a process. It has to close any loops related to what you’re leaving off from and then it has to warm up to what you’re doing now. I’d estimate that any transition probably has at least a five-minute time cost associated with it. Sometimes 10 minutes. If you bounce needlessly between two or three projects or activities in an hour, you could be losing 15 or 20 minutes of that hour. That’s a lot!
How Multitasking is Killing Your Productivity and Lowering Your IQ
It turns out there’s good hard science to back me up when I say, “Stop bouncing between activities!”
Whether you try to do two things at once (update your calendar while talking on the phone or work with the TV on in the background, for example) or bounce between activities a lot (write a paragraph, check your email, look at a web page, check your email, write another paragraph, etc.), you’re hurting your ability to think clearly and that will sap your creativity.
At the end of the day, you’ll wonder how you felt so busy while getting so little done. According to research printed in The New Atlantis, here’s why that happens:
- Hewlett-Packard conducted a study on this and found that multitasking slows your brain down more than using drugs — that’s right, when you’re multitasking, you’re actually dumber than you would be if you were high and focused on one thing.
- According to another study, I’m underestimating how much time transitions steal. Researchers at the University of California found that every time you interrupt your creative thought process to take a call or check your email, it takes about 25 minutes to get fully back into what you were doing. If you bounce from task to task, you may never be working at your full creative capacity.
- Studies using MRIs have shown that when you switch quickly between tasks, you actually create a bottleneck in your brain. It has to slow down to decide what you’re really going to do next.
- If you try to multitask while learning new skills, that new information is harder for your brain to catalog for easy access later.
- Your body also releases adrenaline when multitasking. Chronically high levels of this stress hormone can contribute to a number of health problems.
Multitasking isn’t worth it.
Now, I realize that in some situations it’s hard to avoid … especially if you have young children and are working at home.
However, if you’re able to establish blocks of work time where others won’t interrupt you and you find that you’re interrupting yourself, then it’s time to take control of your attention span, end the multitasking, and realize your full creative potential.
How to Train Your Brain and Increase Your Attention Span
I still tend to bounce. Years of tending to the needs of children has trained me to feel like I need to be doing something else anytime I’m at one thing for more than 15 minutes. But, slowly I’m retraining my brain to focus for longer periods. Here’s what I’m doing that seems to be working. A few of these methods I stumbled across on my own and for the others I had a little help from Lifehacker. Give these strategies a try if you’re also sacrificing big chunks of your day to unnecessary transitions.
- Stomp on the ants. Ants are how I think of negative or distracting thoughts. Like ants, these thoughts tend to swarm if you give them any traction at all. “Why am I doing this? … It’s not going to succeed,” is a classic example. So, as soon as you realize your brain is undermining your focus, take a moment to recognize the stray thoughts for what they are, and then squash them. If that imagery is too violent for you, then use a different image. Pop the bubbles. Or picture the thoughts on a blackboard and erase them.
- Welcome the pauses. Even when you’re in a state of high focus, your actual output will ebb and flow. You may write like crazy for 10 minutes and then come to a point where you’re uncertain what comes next. That’s the moment when you usually find yourself clicking over to email or Facebook. Resist that urge. Instead, just close your eyes for a moment. Welcome the pause, and allow your next thoughts to form. Before you know it, you’ll be back to your breakneck clip.
- Use a timer to build your attention span gradually. If your habit of bouncing between activities is so ingrained that you find yourself growing restless and frustrated any time you spend more than 15 minutes doing something, set a timer for 20 minutes and work just a little bit past that point of discomfort. When 20 minutes becomes comfortable, add five more minutes. Keep adding minutes to your time and you’ll retrain your attention span to last longer and longer.
- Set a schedule that makes sense. As a web writer, you do different things during the day. You do research, you study new trends, you write, you answer emails, you make calls, you manage your website. Make it a point to group similar tasks together on your schedule. Do you have two projects that need some research? Schedule those tasks next to each other during your day. Do all your website management for the day at one time. When you schedule your tasks like this, even if you’re moving between topics, you’re still asking your brain to think in the same way, so you don’t lose as much time as you do when you bounce between drastically different tasks.
- Keep a scratch pad nearby. Having a pad of paper nearby (or a catch-all document open on your computer) makes it possible for you to quickly jot down those thoughts that are basically reminders. Your brain will sometimes remind you about things at the most ridiculous times. You’re crafting the perfect headline and your brain chimes in with a, “Don’t forget to RSVP for that party your daughter was invited to!” When that happens, capture the thought on your notepad, and then keep working.
- Set yourself up for success. Before you dive into a creative project, take a few minutes to get ready. Grab a glass of water and a snack and bring them to your desk. Close your email program. Turn off your phone. Think about the tools you need on your computer and turn off everything else. Grab whatever non-computer tools you need and put them in easy reach. Taking two minutes to prepare yourself to work is much more productive than starting and stopping your way through a project.
These six things are working for me right now. I’m having fewer really-busy-but-what-did-I-get-done kind of days. Personal projects that I’ve let languish are seeing some attention. And, I generally feel much more in control.
What about you? What do you do to keep yourself from getting lost in transition?
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