A few weeks back a colleague passed along an article on the Harvard Business Review Blog, all about the ‘magic’ of doing one thing at a time. When I first saw the email come through, I thought to myself “Oh yeah yeah… of course! I always focus on one task at a time.” And then I suddenly realized- actually, I kind of don’t. Instead, I do the following:

I cozy up to my to do list and choose a task or project to tackle. I start getting into my work, making progress…. and then an email pops up. So I check the email. Maybe I respond, maybe I save it for later. Then I’m back to my task. Two minutes later, an email pops up. And so begins the vicious cycle.

The worst part of the pattern outlined above, is that each time I returned to the task at hand, I would sort of have to start all over again. My mind would get swept up in the email subject and I’d forget where I had left off.

But the email habit was really only one piece of the bigger problem. The real problem became crystal clear after reading this passage:

“Tell the truth: Do you answer email during conference calls (and sometimes even during calls with one other person)? Do you bring your laptop to meetings and then pretend you’re taking notes while you surf the net? Do you eat lunch at your desk? Do you make calls while you’re driving, and even send the occasional text, even though you know you shouldn’t?” 

Um, yes. Yes I do. And even though each of these habits can be treated as individual problems, I saw them, overall, as not really being present in my work. It’s ironic, because over the last few years I’ve given a lot of thought to being present in my personal life, but apparently my business was somehow left out of that equation.

Once I started to take a closer look at my work patterns, I began to sense that my tendency to try to tackle multiple tasks at once, rather than focusing on just one, was the source of a lot of my work anxiety. I would feel like I couldn’t do it all because I had too much work, but really I wasn’t able to do it all because I was trying to take on ALL that work at the same time. A lot of this still went back to email- mainly treating email like it was instant messenger or something so I constantly felt the pressure to respond. But somehow making the bigger realization lifted a weight of some sort, and the steps I needed to take to keep work anxiety at bay and work smarter overall, became much clearer.

So, how has the impacted my work day? Here are the techniques I’m now implementing:

  • Quitting Mail Like I said, email distraction was at the heart of everything, so now when I’m on a call or working on a project I want to focus on completely, I’ll actual quit my Mac mail program so there are no red numbers staring back at me. If the big task is a lengthy email, I’ll actually write the email in a Word doc and then put it into a message.
  • Capitalizing on My A.M. Hours This is something the article talks about too (i.e. tackling your most important tasks in the morning), but it’s especially crucial for me because I’m such a morning person. My best hours are between 8 a.m. and noon. I’m focusing on diving right into each day’s to do list rather than messing around online for the first hour I’m at my desk
  • Taking Real Breaks Tuesday was a gorgeous day, and around 6 pm Brandon mentioned going for a walk. I was so tempted to power through and just try to tackle one more thing, but I literally had not moved all day. I was actually in the process of prepping this blog post and reviewing the article from the HBR blog. Reading through the tips made me realize what I needed to do at that moment in time, both for my mental health and to actually write a better blog post, was the get up and go on that walk. We did, and it made me feel 100 times better.
  • Reminding myself to be present! Lastly, I’ve been really focused on maintaining this mental shift and staying present in my work. When I’m present, I realize just how much I enjoy what I get to do- and that is the most incredible feeling in the world. Enjoying what I’m working on really helps wash away all that anxiety.

Despite the fact that I’m currently the busiest I’ve ever been, I’ve experienced an incredible sense of calm the past few days thanks to the changes above. That, and I’ve really been enjoying my work. In between all the anxiety, it’s really important to relish in those pinch moments now and again!

Image by Jamie Beck

  1. Quitting email makes a HUGE difference. I turned off the badge and all notifications, and I won’t work on my email until I’ve done something else first, whether that’s finishing a blog post or starting work on a project. I do check my email on my phone in the morning before I get out of bed (I’m NOT a morning person — poking around on my phone helps me get started for the day), but I simply delete anything I don’t need and make sure there isn’t anything urgent to respond to, then I don’t look at it again until around lunchtime or after. I’ve even gone until 4 in the afternoon before touching it. It’s amazing how productive I feel on those days!

  2. I LOVE this post. Email and social media are such distractions for me. Your comment about treating email like instant messenger — I’m guilty of that! And though I’m not a morning person, I’ve found that if I can accomplish one thing (even a small task) in the morning, I’m much more productive that day. Thanks for sharing these tips!

  3. I needed to read this. As in, I’m reading this on my phone whole I dry my hair. I am the ultimate multitasker and never feel like I get much accomplished or sit back and consider my work because of this terrible habit. Can’t wait to sit down and read the HBR article - while doing nothing else! Thanks for sharing!

  4. What a great post…thanks for sharing! I especially appreciate the “turn off your email” tip and will certainly try it!

  5. This is so great–I definitely agree that focusing on JUST one this seems pretty difficult. For my work computer, I recently downloaded a program called “Focus Booster” that basically just sections off your time (and tasks) with a timer. It’s so simple, but really useful!

  6. This post - you have no idea HOW much it is needed. Thank you! IMO, in today’s world, there’s so much pressure to multi-task and, quite frankly, I’m finding that multi-tasking and social media distractions often are counter-productive. Going forward, I’m really going to make more of an effort to focus on one task at a time, be present and tell the email box that we’re on a Ross/Rachel break.

  7. This seems to be the theme with helping bloggers lately. Its so hard to focus on JUST one thing when you have multiple internet windows open, alerts for calendars and cell phones, and calls coming in. Focusing really helps. I try to do this at work, and sometimes I literally block off my calendar and do 1 thing for 30 minutes, then move to the next. I have found that it actually makes me even more effective.

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