Telling someone to “just put down the phone” these days is a lot like telling someone to get more exercise or eat more vegetables. We all know that distraction and multitasking are eating away at our days, and we say that we miss the simpler times when we had the chance to focus on people and ideas more singularly and thoroughly. And yet in the same breath, we defend the need to have the phone in hand and look at incoming messages — after all, there are important work matters to be handled, family members with questions and innumerate forms of entertainment to fill in the otherwise boring spaces in our lives. This is efficient! It’s important! It’s even satisfying to feel like we can keep all of these plates spinning simultaneously.
Entrepreneurs in particular are prone to these behaviors and to defending the need to be attentive to multiple things at all times. After all, a new business is like a new baby — it doesn’t stop needing you just because you want a break, or someone or something else clamors for your attention. However, the strongly held belief that we have that we can (and do) handle all the interruptions and multitasking that we attempt all day long is nothing shy of false. What follows are three of the ways that our current patterns of activity are failing us, and what to do about them.
1. Multitasking is an illusion.
Our brains actually cannot process two different streams of thought at once. Instead, we rapidly pull the lever back and forth between two (or more) things, missing some of each and hoping to string together enough of what’s left to make something coherent and functional at the end. Complicating the issue is the fact that our brains need a few moments to finish reviewing and processing any one conversation even after it ends before being ready to attend to something new, or even return to something already in progress.
Tip: If you must interrupt one thing to attend to another, give yourself the extra few seconds in between to let your brain catch up and be ready to go again.
2. You’re not as good as you think you are at multitasking.
Fascinating work has shown that those who spend the most time interweaving two or more tasks in the same time period are actually the least effective, cognitively, at maintaining high-level comprehension of either task (despite tremendous confidence in their abilities to do just that). Instead, they’ve just forgotten what it feels like to be able to focus on one thing, so they assume that they’re being successful when they aren’t.
We all know already that multitasking can be addictive, but how this plays out is quite interesting. The brain, now used to the constant “high” of receiving new stimulation, constantly seeks it out even when the individual is attempting to bring “laser focus” to a single task, and gets distracted instead by noticing every little sound, movement or stray thought available.
Tip: The notification alert of an incoming message can be as distracting as stopping and reading the message itself. Indeed, even seeing your phone changes the way your brain works. To truly give yourself a chance to learn to re-focus on one thing when needed, it will require noises and notifications to be turned off, and devices themselves to be behind a closed door or drawer. Start by rewarding yourself for a small number of minutes without needing to check in or respond, and work up to larger blocks of time.
3. Americans are “accomplishment junkies.”
Nearly every minute of our waking lives, whether at work or at leisure, are filled with to-do lists and activities that are goal-oriented. We even foist this upon our children, whose school days are filled with tests and whose extracurricular activities all now come complete with levels to pass, competitions to enter and trophies to win. The standard American answer to the question “How are you?” has become “Busy!” as if running at maximum speed at all times is a badge of honor.
This is not the case everywhere. In other regions of the world, people accept maintaining relationships as an end in and of itself, and can thus set aside tasks and goals in favor of just spending time with others. Needless to say, our stress rates far surpass those with this type of mindset. While of course you can’t change your entire culture just by recognizing its foibles, it is useful to realize that the goal of using time efficiently can be a trap, and that there are indeed other ways to be.
Tip: Understand that efficiency is a double-edged sword, and too much of it puts you on the road to burn-out. Even for entrepreneurs in the throes of new business growth, it is critical to triage the requests for your attention and remember that some of the “busy-ness” that we engage in is more because it feels good to us than because it is strictly necessary, at an overall cost to our cognitive power. So, yeah, in the end, the advice circles right back around to “Put down the phone!”