As we discussed in yesterday’s time management post time management isn’t easy.
In fact, the reason that many of us struggle with it is that it goes against our natural tendency to avoid difficult decisions and hard things.
Today we’re going to look at focusing on just one thing at a time which is a big theme on our time management course. This is something that is getting ever more difficult.
This is well established as the best way to get things done and manage your time effectively. The differences are most obvious when you are working on a larger, more difficult project that requires concentration but it applies just as much to small tasks. Effective multi-tasking is a myth.
Most recently Cal Newport has detailed this in his book Deep Work but this idea has a long history back to the start of the study of time management and efficiency. The internet and smartphones have simply highlighted the issue anew by exacerbating the issue.
When you are answering texts, writing emails and working on a project all at the same time it is cognitively demanding and you feel highly engaged and busy but you are actually just kidding yourself. Studies show that you’re not producing your highest quality work and that you’re actually taking longer to produce it than if you dealt with each thing sequentially.
Interestingly, they show that there isn’t really such a thing as multi-tasking. What you are actually doing is repeatedly moving between tasks and single-tasking. However, by changing your focus repeatedly you kid yourself that you’re actually doing more than one thing at the same time.
Each time you change your focus it takes time and energy to pick up a new task. All you are actually doing is frittering your time and energy away by needlessly changing tasks repeatedly.
So ….. how do you train yourself to do the unnatural thing and focus on one thing at a time.
In this article, we’re going to look at two methods you can use to help build your single-tasking muscle and make better use of your time.
This stands for Only Handle It Once.
The premise of this idea is that once you pick up a task or piece of work you can’t put it down until you’ve either completed it or taken it as far as you possibly can. Obviously, if the task is large you need to set a sensible but demanding target for what it is possible to accomplish in one day.
This one is hard but, inevitably, that is what makes it such a good time management technique.
If you commit to it – and I recommend that you do – it means that you never pick up a task half-heartedly ‘just to have a look’.
Because you are committing to take the task to its conclusion when you pick it up, it forces you to think about the time you have available and what your priorities are BEFORE you start.
It also forces you to be decisive about something once you have picked it up.
This is where it’s power comes from with smaller administrative tasks especially. You have now committed yourself to not procrastinating on whatever task you have picked up (see this article for more on avoiding procrastination).
If you are going to do something you have to be a) intentional about it and b) you then aggressively push it to a conclusion. By forcing you to drive something to a conclusion it also frees up your mental space for other things. You no longer need to remember to come back to a half-finished task in the future.
We have all looked at an email or text and thought ‘Oh I just need to have a think about that I’m not sure I’ll come back to it tomorrow’ and then found it in our inbox two weeks later forgotten. We never quite get back to the email and it gets forgotten.
Usually, this is not because it truly needs more thought but because there is something uncomfortable about it that we’d rather avoid facing.
Next time you open your emails try it. Force yourself to fully deal with each email that you open.
You’ll probably find that in most cases the tricky ones you would have left will take a couple of minutes thought but that’s it. And by sending the reply you’ve now dealt with it and moved on.
If this sounds extreme or difficult to implement we’ll now look at a less strict form of OHIO which many people find works very well for making sure they learn to use their time efficiently.
The Pomodoro technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s.
It involves using a timer to block out time for individual tasks and focusing only on that task until the timer goes.
It is named after the tomato kitchen timer that Cirillo used as a student to time his blocks of time.
The process is simple to use:
1. Choose the task that you need to complete next.
2. Set your timer for a block of time (often called a ‘Pomodoro’). This can be any length of time but many people use 25 minutes.
3. Work on the task to the exclusion of everything else until the timer rings. This means that you don’t answer the phone if it rings or reply to texts.
4. Take a short break – often people use 5 minutes for the break. Again when you are relaxing this is 100% relaxing so not checking emails / surfing the web etc.
That’s it. You can do this for any task.
So, if you need to get on top of your emails you set aside a 25-minute block to sort them out. If you haven’t finished them you would then take a break and start another pomodoro until you are caught up on your emails.
Many people batch pomodoros together.
A widely used schedule is that after four pomodoros you schedule a longer break of perhaps 30 minutes. This means that four pomodoros constitute a 2 1/2 hour block.
Many people report that they feel they achieve more in 8 pomodoros (so 5 hours in total) than they would do in a normal, scattered 8 hour workday.
If you implement the pomodoro technique I would recommend carrying out an audit of your time (see this article on auditing your time for full details) before you do so. That way you will have a good idea of how effectively you are currently using your time to compare against.
As ways to manage your time both OHIO and Pomodoro are very similar. They force you to focus on a single task either to its conclusion or for a substantial chunk of time so that you will make significant progress.
We recommend strongly that you experiment with both and learn which time management technique works best for you.
Everyone is different and everyone has different demands on their time during a typical workday and so the exact implementation of these techniques needs to be personalised.
Some people use OHIO for smaller tasks (email, letters etc) and Pomodoro for longer projects where they are going to run over one workday. Others use pomodoro technique but find that using a 50:10 cycle for their blocks of time works best.
Best of luck with finding the optimum setup for your time management!