In my 20s, my day-to-day as a young professional is often go, go, go — pause for lunch — now keep going! And that often means my work week doesn’t fall into the average 40-hour 8–5 schedule of most seasoned professionals.
And, I’m sad to say, I often find it hard to fall asleep — 😱do I sound old!
Because of my work schedule, the line between work and home is often blurred — and I end up still going over mental task lists right before I turn in for the night.
I’m blessed to love my job, but I couldn’t help wondering if I could establish a better system for productivity. Could I get everything done that needed to be and not be lying in bed awake tallying up everything I’d need to tackle the next day?
Well, friends, I could. I do (on any good day)! And it has to do with giving up multitasking and “brain dumping” instead.
Why we can’t actually multitask
Neuroscientists have determined that the brain cannot run multiple processes at the same time. Even when we think we’re juggling multiple tasks, we’re really just having our brain perform ‘start-stop’ functions that end thinking about one task to begin thinking about the next.
As neuroscientist Earl Miller puts it, “‘we simply can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. What we can do…is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed.”
So take it from the people who literally study what our brains do — multitasking is not physically possible.
For instance, if I’m writing this article and get an email notification in the corner of my screen, my brain can literally not process the fact that I received an email without a ‘stop-writing; start-understanding’ function, which my brain is wont to do — “New information! New information!” it screams.
Then to get back to writing, my brain has to perform a ‘start-writing’ function again. And that happens Every. Single. Time. a new distraction comes around.
Obviously, the stop-start functions are not as time-consuming for our brains as reading them written out here, but nevertheless, they do take time. And switching between tasks can suck productivity by 40%.
Not only does it zap time which could be put toward completing tasks so I’m not working late hours into the night, but task switching also leaves behind “attention residue.”
In Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, he succinctly explains past research findings on attention residue:
“The problem this research identifies with [switching between work projects] is that when you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow — a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task,” details Newport. “And the more intense the residue, the worse the performance.”
So to decrease attention residue in my day-to-day, one of my newly successful writing practices is ‘going into a hole,’ or putting on my noise-canceling earphones, turning my phone to Do Not Disturb, and minimizing all computer notifications.
I am actually able to get an article written in one sitting! And lucky for me, if my coworkers need my prompt response, I’m a shoulder-tap away.
How to be more productive
I understand not everyone has the ability to tune out the world at any given time, whether it’s the office culture, a team working situation, what have you.
But before you write off your attention residue as an inevitable thing, the following steps can help minimize your mental load:
1. Examine what might be contributing to a cluttered headspace, and reduce it.
Are those red number badges enabled on your phone if you don’t really plan on immediately taking care of every email or social media notification? Do you have a running mental to-do list that you contribute to throughout the day?
Simplify things for yourself and give your brain a break — write down your to-do list; if you have tasks associated with a certain time of day, schedule a calendar reminder. Don’t carry unnecessary mental baggage if you don’t need to.
2. To really put in your best effort, give tasks your undivided attention.
The average person loves feeling ‘productive,’ checking those to-do boxes, and “doing all the things.” But wouldn’t it be nice to also be known for the quality of your work?
Wouldn’t it just rock your socks if the next email you sent to the higher-ups was typo free and represented how much of a rockstar you really are?
As Ron Swanson once intelligently said, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”
3. “Brain dump” all of those pesky thoughts that keep clouding your current attention.
This cornerstone concept from David Allen’s infamous methodology and book, Getting Things Done, is quite simple: empty your brain.
Designate an “inbox” or someplace you can/will return to — whether it’s your “Notes” in your phone, a productivity manager on your computer, or a piece of paper.
Write down everything that is going on in your head — what you need to accomplish today, reminders, future projects, etc.
By reassuring yourself that you have that information logged and you will return to it later, you free up your brain to concentrate on your determined singular task at hand.
So even if you’re not holding yourself up in a castle out in the woods (Cal Newport’s apparent preferred workspace…), you’re still reducing attention residue and increasing the ease with which you can concentrate on a singular task until the ‘necessary’ interruptions come along.
How to sleep better
Quite simply, I have an “inbox” right next to my bed, and I’ve made brain dumping a part of my nightly bedtime routine.
Projects I wasn’t able to get to that day? I jot those down, including any pertinent notes on level of priority and due dates.
Task items I’m waiting on from a colleague and need to check in about the next day? Those get logged, too.
Don’t feel pressured to come up with a list if nothing immediately comes to mind; but if you’re drawing a blank, I would challenge you to try to think about nothing and see how long you can meditate on that nothingness before thoughts pop up. Those are the items I propose you acknowledge, write down, then save tomorrow’s brain.
Every single thing that pops into my head gets written down in my inbox — even something I think of once I lie down. I just roll over, jot down that additional thing, and prepare to drift back asleep.
I’m not tossing and turning, as my brain rests easy knowing that it doesn’t have to recall those items in the morning. I’ll just revisit the list at the start of my day.
Since we mere humans can’t truly multitask, we’re not doomed to a life of lost productivity. Limit task-switching, brain dump, and rest easy!