In a previous article, I spoke about the futility of attempting to achieve work-life balance through a measurement of time, because this often just results in the frustration of not giving enough time to either. This lose-lose can be turned into a win-win if we measure quality and focus on purpose, rather than quantify time.

Fair enough, you say, but time is still finite, so how do we deal with maximising it?

Many of us resort to juggling as much as we can to fill our time up with achieving, what we believe, is a maxed-out existence. We pride ourselves with the ability to ‘multitask’ and spin plates, to give us the feeling that we are doing a lot with the time we have. Since we each have the same 24 hours to get all we need done, the best performers will squeeze as much in as possible, right? Wrong.

Our brain (according to D Kahneman) works on (loosely described by me) two systems, with one aspect of our brain working at a ‘faster’ speed than the other more reflective and thoughtful ‘slower’ system. The faster thinking process relies on our filing cabinet of experiences and memories to create patterns that allow us to make decisions or make sense of the world around us in a rapid way. We often describe this as instinctive or intuitive thinking, and it relies on building a quick picture of the situation at hand.

Slow thinking, on the other hand, requites effort and therefore takes more time. Like adding up a maths sum, contemplating a snack choice or giving a meaningful speech, this system works on intent, and relies on in-depth processing.

Sometimes, we learn through slow thinking processes, until we become ‘unconsciously competent’ to move that process into our filing cabinet as a ‘whole pattern’, to later retrieve at speed. If you take the example of driving your car, the first time required intense concentration, coordinating the pedals and levers whilst watching the road. After years of driving we can often drive on ‘auto-pilot’ to our place of work or home, since we have learnt the pattern through repetition.

Relying on fast thinking, however, gets you to drive to your office instead of to that important client meeting, as your brain is fully occupied ‘slow’ thinking about the presentation you have to give. Permitting my oversimplification, if our brain now only requires 10 per cent of our RAM to drive because it has been automated, we can then spend 90 per cent of our brain thinking about ‘important stuff’. These processes are heavy on our processing unit, with something like speaking requiring 80 per cent of our mental capacity. We can therefore manage fast and slow thinking combinations (like walking and talking, jogging and listening to music, etc) but cannot simultaneously do two slow thinking activities – like read and listen to music.

‘But I do that all the time,’ you will exclaim. Not true. You may be hearing the music, but you are not actually listening to it. If you did shift your attention to the music, you would not be reading. You will go over the words, but you won’t understand what you have read and will have to go back and re-read the page.

Any two things that require attention and intention can’t be done simultaneously. You can’t taste your food if you are deeply engrossed in a movie or meaningful conversation over dinner. You can’t do mental arithmetic whilst writing prose. You can’t listen to a conversation in a meeting if you are reading emails on your phone, and you cannot contribute thoughts to the same meeting if your mind is thinking about your pending task list.

The key is to focus on what really matters at that point in time, without ‘switching’ your mind from one thing to another. Switching is an inefficient use of time and brain power.

For us to get into flow and accelerate our brain power for maximum performance, we need to trigger deep embodiment, intense focus and absorption into what we are doing. This takes time, and when we skip from one thing to another, we don’t give enough time to achieve flow. Our performance is reduced, and the time we ‘wasted’ skipping adds up. In total, multitasking can cost us significant amounts of ‘dead’ brain time. This is often compounded by the re-work required when we make mistakes, due to lack of focus and attention.

Distractions are equally troubling, as they knock us off the flow train and we keep needing to refocus, wasting time and brain effort. In both distractions and multitasking, we may feel we are busy and doing a lot, but in actual fact we are performing at a lesser output than our potential could achieve. How many of us have had those days where we get home tired, yet feel we have accomplished very little of importance? We’ve been skimming the surface being busy in our busy-ness that we missed out on accomplishing more meaningful and purposeful goals.

To make matters worse, this feeling of busy-ness releases cortisol and causes anxiety, leading to burn out and dissatisfaction. We lose out on the dopamine kick that makes us feel great when we accomplish goals, cross things off our task list, and meet those deadlines. We need short-term milestones to stay motivated, so stretching time between these kilometre markers because we are trying to run two concurrent marathons is demotivating and energy sapping.

In a fun experiment, twin brothers where given a set of identical tasks: to assemble a kennel out of prefabricated parts, send three SMS messages, answer an email and make a phone call. The one that bragged he was a great multitasker set to the task of assembling the kennel with his phone held between his shoulder and ear, making that phone call. He answered emails and texts in between assembling parts. The other simply put the phone down, built the kennel and then set to the ‘admin’ tasks afterwards. He finished miles ahead of his multitasking brother.

If you’re familiar with my work, you probably know I am a fan of Thich Nhat Hanh and his teachings on mindfulness and focus. “When you are washing the dishes, wash the dishes,” is a simple yet important lesson. Focus on what you are doing at this time, to give it your best. Ekhart Tolle tells us to focus on now, and zen teaches us to pay attention to our consciousness and not let the world pass us by without us realising.

A walk through your high street can lead to new architectural revelations, interesting people and behaviours, rich sounds and smells, or it can simply be a mindless path to get to your place of errand. You decide.

For those that still believe they simply must get a lot done, there is a better way than multitasking. ‘Chunking’ is a system I use (and coach) because it allows me enough time to get into focus, whilst being disciplined to move on with purpose and not allow daydreaming or distraction. I can ‘chunk’ 10 minutes of email time while waiting for a late client, or even chunk a blog update or buy that book online by focusing on these smaller five-minute chunks of time. For this to work, I never allow distractions while in a chunk of time. I simply wait until that chunk is over; I won’t answer an incoming call or pay attention to someone who walks into my office if I’m chunking something else.

I also use the same concept with my meetings. I chunk meeting time into five, 15 or 45 minutes, for example, as follows:

5 minutes – someone wants to run an idea by me after having sent all the detail by email. They may need my ‘go ahead’ but have one final question.

15 minutes – someone wants to run three well-thought-out ideas by me. They have already done all the research and simply want to run the options by me for my input.

45 minutes – each of the three issues require deeper analysis and conversation.

By chunking time this way, I can fit in plenty of five and 15 minute meetings into my day without distracting from my deeper thoughtful time where I need to pay full attention. I try to be extremely disciplined to stop distractions, switching off my phone if necessary. I avoid using my laptop in meetings and aim to start and finish strictly on time.

Others around me that are less disciplined usually fall into the same method, especially when they realise how productive it can be. Those that simply love to distract get no joy from me. Perhaps it sounds ‘nasty’ if I claim to have an open-door policy and want to be available for my team; however, isn’t it worse if I do my job badly and make the wrong decisions in a leadership position? In any case, I am available at least every hour. All they need is a little patience; and they can do some of their own chunking while they wait!

Check out the original version of this article on Ultimate Performance.

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