How I Stopped Multitasking and Started Getting Stuff Done

Multitask by ryantron

(This post was originally published on the Leading by DESIGN Leadership Matters blog for alumni of LEAD 365.)

Have you seen the Pixar film Up? You know, the one about the old man (Carl) who inflates thousands of balloons to fly his house to the jungle, and accidentally gives a ride to an eager young Wilderness Explorer (Russell) who is trying to get his badge for helping the elderly. My favorite character in the movie is Dug, the friendly, enthusiastic dog that Carl and Russell meet partway through the movie. Dug is my favorite not just because I love dogs, but because he perfectly illustrates my view of multitasking. Take a look at this clip to see if you get what I’m implying about multitasking:

I used to be quite the multitasker. It felt so efficient to respond to each “squirrel” that flashed by, be it email, text, phone call, Facebook, or Slack (and the many, many more communication tools that I don’t use or even know of). I’m sure you understand the issue here. Although I responded quickly to most everything that came in, I never really got anything done. I’d find myself scrambling to prepare for a webinar the night before, or not following through with projects like I said I would. I was very much like Dug, and the world was full of squirrels, all eager for my attention.

A friend of mine introduced me to the Pomodoro method of time management. I’ve become a true believer, and have shared it with many others, including a few of you. It’s really simple:

  1. At the beginning of the day, write down things you need to get done. For me, that list usually includes things like email, session or webinar prep, slide design, work-related reading, writing notes to people, and sometimes even laundry. (The joy of working from home.)
  2. Pick one thing from your list. Set a timer for 25 minutes and work on that thing and that thing only until the timer goes off.
  3. When the timer dings, take a 5 minute break.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 a few times, then take a 15 minute break.
  5. Start at number 2 again if you want to keep going with Pomodoros.

Pretty easy, right? The trick to making this work is that you cannot let yourself be interrupted during your 25 minutes. Phone ringing? Let it go to voicemail. New email? Now’s not the time. In fact, close your email window. Quick birthday party in the breakroom? There will still be cake when the timer goes off. Dog whining to go out? Well, that one I take care of, but I pause my timer until I get back in! (The sorrow of working from home.)

I am naturally very easily distracted, much like Dug, and the Pomodoro method allows me to be so much more efficient than when I’m chasing every squirrel. I don’t try to get in non-stop Pomodoros all day. If I have no appointments on a work day (a rare thing in itself), I will usually aim for just 5 or 6 Pomodoros, and then let the rest of my time be a bit more free of structure. If half of my day is appointments, I aim for just 3 Pomodoros. Even this helps me be so much more focused and efficient.

Another benefit to the Pomodoro method is that it can help you tackle those tasks that you don’t want to deal with. I get overwhelmed by my email inbox sometimes, and it’s easy for me to put off emails that need a long response. Then I get embarrased at how long I’ve delayed in responding. That’s not fun for anyone. I’ve found that if I start the day with a Pomodoro for my email, I’m usually energized and ready to keep working on it even after the timer goes off.

The Pomodoro method is not a cure-all, but it is a system that has made a huge difference in my productivity at work and at home. What about you? Do you believe in multitasking, or do you find that you become less efficient when you try to do more than one thing at a time? Have you used the Pomodoro or something similar? How does it work for you?

My blog-writing Pomodoro is almost up, so I should wrap this up. Please share your thoughts on how you manage the many demands of your life and leadership.

Image by ryantron. Used under CC by 2.0 license.

Posted in Leading Yourself and tagged , , .

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