Most people cannot multi-task. However, many of us try to at least “semi-multitask”. We don’t necessarily do more than one thing at once, but we attempt to get multiple things done in one work session.
Perhaps we start the coffee brewing, then sit down at the computer to check e-mail. Then we pour a cup of coffee. Then we look at the agenda of the meeting later today. Then we get back to the half-typed e-mail we were working on before. Then, as we sip our coffee, we jot down some questions to ask at the meeting. Then we get back to that mostly-completed e-mail, add the last sentence, and hit “send”.
What happened here? We weren’t doing e-mail, coffee, and meeting preparation at the same time. We were shifting our focus between all of these tasks. This is not the most efficient way to work, but it’s exactly what many people do (and those people might even think they are “multitasking”).
The fact is, most people can only focus on one task at a time. Despite this fact, many people keep several separate streams of to-do items, both physically and mentally. For example, you might have a list of things to do at work, and a separate list of chores to remember at home, and a separate list of things to do on your computer during your free time. Your focus shifts between the lists whenever you encounter a roadblock. Unconsciously, you use shifting between lists as a postponement technique for procrastinating.
Imagine this tale of two lists: 1) work to-dos, and 2) chore to-dos. First thing in the morning, you pull up your work to-do list. The first item on the list is, “prepare for meeting”. You look at the agenda and think to yourself, “geez, I really don’t feel like reading through this right now”. So you pull out your chore to-dos, and the first item on the list is “make coffee”. You think to yourself, “I better make some coffee”. You abandon your meeting planning and go make some coffee. You finish making coffee, sit down with a nice hot cup of coffee, check “make coffee” off your to-do list, and pat yourself on the back for “getting things done”.
Now, next on the chore to-do list is “e-mail Fred back”. You open up your e-mail, re-read that email Fred sent last night, and think to yourself, “dang, this Fred is a real jerk, but he’s also my boss, so I better be careful with my response.” You start typing a response, but it’s a real pain. You decide to take a break and switch back to your work to-dos. After all, you still haven’t come up with questions for that meeting yet.
See what’s happening here? Switching between to-do lists becomes a procrastination tactic. You procrastinate on some difficult tasks, but you still feel like you’re getting things done. And that’s with only two lists. Imagine the opportunities for procrastination if you had five to-do lists!
The solution to this problem is to “single-stream” your to-do lists. That is, you combine all of your to-do lists to just one list. That’s e-mail, coffee, and meeting preparation all on the same to-do list, and you have to complete each item before you can move on to the next. Wake up and write your e-mail response. You can’t get your coffee until that e-mail is sent. And don’t even touch that meeting agenda until you have your coffee in hand. If you don’t send that e-mail, you get no coffee, and you can’t prepare for your meeting, so you better send it out now. Procrastination becomes impossible.