We are all to familiar with the constant sense of being overwhelmed in today’s fast moving world. From reading and responding to emails while participating in a conference call to texting while driving to using our blackberry’s while watching our kids basketball game. The world is global, the pace is rapid, the demands on our time and resources growing by the minute. Countless books have been written on how to be a master multi -tasker and people seem to be proud to share the latest things they have come up with to do 7 unrelated tasks at once.
Is this way of operating, this way of living with the lines between your work life and your personal life not just blurred but essentially erased yielding us increased productivity or happiness? I don’t believe so. Now in all honesty I am and have been for as long as I can remember a chronic multi-tasker. I often thrive when I feel like I’m spinning thirteen plates in the air. On any given day I might be working on three proposals, five client deliverables, jumping from conference call to meeting to conference call like a modern day super hero (Consultant-Man?) while managing 150 emails a day and trying to catch a flight, a cab or a train simultaneously. So I’ve become used to feeling overwhelmed, in fact it pretty much feels “normal”. Now normal is a relative term, ask someone in Seattle to describe the weather on a typical day and you’ll get a very different response than you would by asking the same question of a surfer in San Diego. Rain and sunshine are quite different yet they are “normal” to those that live in those environments.
So if overwhelmed is the new normal, what might “whelmed” be? You don’t often hear someone telling their friends or colleagues that they’ve been trying out a new gadget or process to help them “uni-task” do you? Ask yourself when was the last time you made a conscience effort to do just one thing for an hour or two. Not while checking emails every two minutes or IM’ing or web surfing but one task and only one task. I asked myself this question a few weeks ago after reading a few books on neuroscience (Your Brain at Work by David Rock is amazing) as well as Rework by Jason Fried of 37signals.com. Guess what? Doing more usually means getting less done. It also means it takes much longer, in some instances 30 to 50 percent longer to accomplish something. There are switching “costs” that are hard wired in our brains and it takes time to get into a groove or the flow of a specific task at hand. Bouncing around from task to task to task decreases your productivity, increases your stress levels, causes you to produce work that is not representative of what you are capable of and ultimately is a big hurdle to happiness.
Well if being overwhelmed isn’t a “competitive advantage” but being whelmed might be how do you get there? I for one don’t believe you can in an absolute way but I do believe that you can take blocks of time to focus on specific tasks and stick to it. You may need to start with 20 or 30 minute blocks and build up to an hour or two or more. You need to identify the self inflicted “stuff” that you know pulls you away from the tasks at hand (the little ding on your computer letting you know you’ve gotten an email, the buzz on your IM window, checking in on Facebook 11 times a day, web surfing, etc.). If you can identify three big distractions and focus on eliminating one of them or changing your behavior around one of them over a two week period you’ve got a 90 percent chance of “fixing” that behavior. If you’ve got any doubts as to what those three might be casually jot down how often you fall victim to any of the above over the course of a typical day.
Guard and protect the time you’ve allocated to being “whelmed” time. Make sure to be realistic and realize there are patterns you can recognize that will guide you in how to choose those blocks of time. If Monday morning at your office is traditionally a time when everyone is reconnecting and catching up than make sure you take those factors into consideration.
So it may not be as sexy as the multi-taskers claim doing 17 things at once is and there may be less gadgets and gizmos in the market place that support being whelmed but if you can be more productive, less stressed and produce better work wouldn’t you want to at least give it a try?
I’d like to hear some things that you did that worked and things that didn’t in your personal pursuit of “whelmed.”