It starts, innocently enough, with inspired action and a will to accomplish, build and fulfill what’s in our heart or mind to create. But if we’re not careful, it quickly turns into being buried in work and delayed outcomes rather than the productivity we thought we were creating.
Let’s be clear on what we mean by multitasking before we get into the tips on how to improve your productivity. Managing multiple tasks simultaneously actually impairs productivity. And your quest to be more productive will come down to how well you can focus on the task at hand. To divert your attention away from the task at hand will only make it take longer.
In The One Thing by billionaire Gary Keller, he says
“Extraordinary success is sequential, not simultaneous.”
You need to focus on the vital few tasks, not the trivial many, that will get you to your goal.
So let’s agree that by “multitasking”, we mean the many tasks you have to do, not doing them simultaneously. This article is about how we manage the many tasks we have to do in such a way that we improve our productivity in both quantity and quality so we can live the life we’ve envisioned living.
1. Adjust Your Expectations
I’ve found that the more projects I take on, the more tasks I have to manage. That sounds obvious but it’s a critical distinction. Most people take on way too much and have impossible expectations that they can get it all done.
With every project comes more details than we can predict. If you’re not careful, you’ll take on too many projects that bury you in tasks you have no hope of managing.
I did this a ton in my twenties. It was exciting to dream of all that I wanted. I would dabble in a handful of ideas and then move on to the next when I wasn’t seeing the results I wanted. From the outside, it might have looked like I was “multitasking”, but I wasn’t getting where I wanted to go.
The downside of dabbling with all these ideas was that I started to see myself as someone who couldn’t produce a result. It erodes your confidence when you take on a ton of projects and then can’t move any of them to the place you had in your mind to take them.
So this first tip is a big one because it will impact your ability to manage whatever other tasks you choose to put on your plate. Choose wisely.
2. Choose Wisely
You can’t do it all. You know that. But what’s the threshold of what you can do? It’s a lot less than you think, which means you have to choose wisely the tasks you take on to produce the most you can in the time you give it.
When launching my marketing agency I had to do most of the tasks. And as our clients grew so did the tasks I had to manage. I waited longer than I should have to find help and this cost me a loss in growth during the time I held on to all the tasks. It also caused stress that impacted my ability to focus and show up as the best version of myself. I had to find the vital few tasks that would grow my company. I had to choose wisely what I would spend my time on.
Once you have chosen the vital few tasks you will manage, you will either have to make peace with letting the other tasks go or outsource them to someone else.
Focused on the vital few, my company began to grow again and I found myself buried in more tasks than I could handle. This is the nature of success.
As your productivity grows, so does your to-do list. It was clear I couldn’t multitask my way out of this one and continue to grow. So I began to build my team of contractors I could outsource my growing list of details to.
This is an important tip because many of us never ask for help. If we work for someone else, it’s easy to think we’re a better team player if we can show that we can do it all.
If you own your own business, it’s easy to think you can’t afford the help you need. And so, we get buried in the details and read articles about multitasking, hoping they’ll provide some answers or relief about how we can get more done in our already overloaded schedule.
Delegating and outsourcing to good contractors has become so much easier as more and more talented people step into the gig economy. At my company, we use Upwork.com on a daily basis. We have also used Fiverr.com and the many resources available in the Envato marketplace. In this day and age, you don’t have to do it all yourself. There is an entire ecosystem you can outsource to and it costs a lot less than you think.
Moreover, it’s costing you much more in lost productivity to shoulder it all and not outsource. By outsourcing, you can refocus on managing the list of the vital tasks that move the needle toward your desired outcome.
4. List Management
I always carried my action items in my head, until it was so full that I had to write it onto pages in my journal or nearby sticky notes. But those ideas and to-do’s got lost over time forcing me into a pattern of reacting to whatever showed up in my day. Reacting is not a great place to produce from.
I needed a better way to manage my growing list of tasks so they were all in one place. My agency had been using Trello to manage our client projects and so I decided to try it for housing my list of to-dos.
Trello works well because it’s flexible. You can create what they call “Boards”. We have a Trello board for our tier 1 clients and a separate board for our tier 2 clients. We have a Trello board for all our Leads and a Trello board for Operations. I also created a board for my own list of to-dos.
Inside a board, you create “Lists”. Some of my team create lists for tasks around priority level like “High Priority”, “Mid Priority”, and “Low Priority”.
I found what worked best for me was to create lists based on time. My lists are labeled “Today”, “This Week”, “This Month”, “This Quarter”, “This Year”, and “The Future”. I move products and tasks into and out of these different lists based on when I need to focus on them.
I also created a list in my board that says “Brain Dump” where I can quickly open my Trello app, open that board and just dump ideas or to-do’s quickly and then drag them to the appropriate list later.
Inside lists, you can create “Cards”. Cards allow you to create checklists, due dates, descriptions, and comments. You can tag team members and add color-coded labels. While I don’t use all these features in cards, I find that it allows me to organize my thoughts about a particular task and continue adding as more ideas or items come up for that task.
Having one place to collect, organize and manage all your ideas and to-do’s is critical if you want to manage multiple tasks.
As you manage your list of to-do’s you’ll see similar activities you can lump together and knock out in a “batch”.
In the beginning months of my startup, I would do everything all the time. I was just trying to figure out all the moving pieces and respond to what was urgent. But as the work piled on, I found certain kinds of work required certain kinds of focus and energy. Responding to emails, was different than creating meaningful social posts and updating Trello cards was different than taking time for vision and planning.
Enter batching. Batching lumped similar tasks into a condensed time frame which allowed me to get more done on those particular types of tasks by using the energy those tasks required.
My company does done-for-you content marketing where we interview our clients for their own podcasts. Each interview we do has an entire checklist of tasks to complete.
In the beginning, I would record an interview with a client for their podcast. As soon as the interview was over, I would get up from my computer and walk away just to get different energy, leaving the episode title, the description we used for their YouTube channel, and updating our Trello list for later.
It took so much longer to come back to those tasks, having to remember what we talked about and get back into the frame of mind to complete that episode. So, I started batching all those tasks at the end of the interview. Not only did the work get done faster, I felt lighter not carrying around all the undone tasks in my head.
Batching is a powerful practice. You can start by simply batching one kind of task with another. Take it slow. See how it feels. Play with it. The whole goal is to increase output and minimize interruptions
6. Interruption Management
Interruptions are one of the biggest killers of productivity. Multitasking is no match for constant interruption and communications can be one of the primary culprits of this lost productivity. This applies whether you work in an office with others, at home by yourself or have a virtual team.
As our virtual team grew, we had to find ways to communicate daily around projects, fulfillment, and ideas. Talk about being pulled away from productivity. I would spend an hour to two hours a day just responding to communications in email, text, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Trello, Voxer and Slack.
We added tools like Slack and Trello to streamline communication, but I found myself getting pulled into chat threads every hour with notifications lighting up my phone. Realizing I couldn’t focus on the vital few if I was constantly pulled into the weeds of my business, I had to create some boundaries for myself and with my team around how and when I would use these communication tools.
Set boundaries with the people in your life by letting them know when you’re available and when you’ll respond to their communications. Turn off the push notifications on your phone or set your phone in airplane mode during productive times. You don’t need to be unreachable all day. You just need to protect your focus during tasks that require it.
One of the hacks that allowed me to batch all the work at the end of a client interview was, having all the tools and tabs open on my computer that I needed to quickly complete the tasks. That sounds obvious in hindsight, but sometimes when we’re buried in all the tasks we’re trying to manage, we move from task to task in a frantic pace and don’t allow time to prepare the tools, our space, or our minds for the work we’re about to move into.
What took an extra couple of minutes in preparation easily saved me twenty minutes in clean up the way I used to do it.
If you’re going to manage multiple tasks, then preparing for those tasks ahead of time will streamline efficiency and as a result increase productivity.
In a previous article I wrote on Lifehack, I talked about the importance of nutrition on memory enhancement. Similarly, nutrition can impact performance and productivity.
As my startup grew and my time got squeezed, I found myself drinking more coffee, eating unhealthy snacks and less nutritious food. I also found myself starting happy-hour earlier just to hide from all the details in my head.
Over time, my body was tied in knots. My sleep schedule was off and my focus was hit and miss. Simply dropping the coffee, happy-hour and doing more proactive meal prep put me back in my body and my mind which helped me be more present to the tasks I had to manage every day.
Nutrition is not a common tip for multitasking management, but it’s imperative if you want to be productive.
These are some healthy eating habits to help you stay productive: 15 Eating Habits to Make You Stay Productive at Work
9. Take a Break
When you’re invested in your work, it’s easy to take it with you everywhere.
I find myself constantly working. My business is important to me because I feel we have important work to do in the world. But, I’ve found that if I don’t take a break, I begin to feel worn down by the sheer load of it all.
I notice, too, that when I do take a break from work, my mind relaxes and a space opens up for new inspiration and energy, giving me renewed focus for the vital few tasks I need to manage when I go back to work.
This is why it’s important to schedule downtime. Again, this is not common multitasking advice, but for those of us that want to hack life, we understand and appreciate a holistic approach to productivity.
The Bottom Line
The goal is a rich and productive life, not spinning a bunch of plates only to look up years from now and wonder why you’re not further in life than you are.
From the book The One Thing,
“Activity is often unrelated to productivity, and busyness rarely takes care of business.”
Multitasking, as most people think about it, is really just busyness. But managing the vital few tasks sequentially, not simultaneously, will lead you to the kind of productivity that will take you where you wish to go.