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Are You A Multi-Tasker?

Do you consider yourself a good multi-tasker? Can you multi task? Think about it for a minute before you read further.

I don’t think there is such a thing as a good multi tasker. In fact, I dont think multi tasking is even possible. Here’s my thoughts.

I try not to take my day job home, but sometimes it is necessary. Wheb I had to do this I would play Netflix in the background while going through emails on my laptop. Multi tasking. Watching a movie while working.

The truth is that I concentrated on neither task fully and I would have been much better off working with no distractions to completely finish my task and then sit down to enjoy something on TV.

The lesson here is that multi tasking does not lead to productivity. Single tasking does.

In other words, we need to concentrate on the task at hand until we have successfully completed it or reached a milestone where we are happy to move on to something different.

This is something we find very difficult to do nowadays. There is so much additional stimulation that we find it difficult to concentrate on one thing for any length of time. Even as I write this I feel the urge to check my smart phone.

In my opinion this is connected to the current smart phone / screen addiction. Maybe the effect of short term gratification from todays technological gizmos are wiring our brains to multi task more. I am willing to bet that multi tasking is a relatively recent phenomenon since the invention of screens and phones.

Todays technology also makes us more accessible to interruptions, forcing us to multi task. In some circumstances these are unavoidable but you can put measures in place like putting your phone in flight mode, closing your door or telling people to f*** off (JOKING – maybe don’t do that, we all about distressing and getting along here).

I think that we are also over whelmed with too much information these days. Too much information gives us too much to deal with and so we feel the need to multi task. The result is that you do not put your full attention into these items.

We also have the illusion that we will achieve more through multi-tasking. The brain rewards us with a dopamine hit when we complete a task but the satisfaction would be far greater if we complete a task knowing that we have given it our full attention.

We also have to deal with the ASAP syndrome. As an experiment in your professional life, take note over the next week of what the response is when you ask somebody “When do you need this?” I am going to guess 80% of the time the answer will be yesterday or asap. This encourages our desire to multi task. Outside pressure forces us to jump straight into action mode, rather than taking a breath to assess where we are at and what are our next actionable items.

The term, “jack of all trades, master of none,” applies to multi tasking. We certainly cannot be experts in anything when we spread ourselves too thin. Jacks of all tasks, masters of none. We are juggling our work load, but just like a juggler, we have a couple of different balls in the air, but we are only touching one at a time. In other words, we may think we are multi tasking but we are actually rapidly switching between tasks. It is this rapid switching which prevents from concentrating fully on any one task.

Put down the balls and pick up one at a time. When we attempt to multi task it may actually take 40% longer than putting our full effort into it. This brings me back to my Netflix / work example. I could have worked single mindedly for half the time rather than splitting my attention between two tasks.

According to Clifford Nass, a communication professor at Stanford, the more we multi task, the more difficult we find to learn, concentrate and be nice to people. I can think of many times where I cut somebody off or was rude because I had too many things going on at one time.

Nass says that if you think you are good at multi tasking, you aren’t. “People who multi task all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted.” This is something I struggle with my self. I find it difficult to filter out the irrelevant and shut out the distractions.

Just as practising self control and meditation re-wire our brains, multi tasking also rewires our brain. These scattered habits have a similar scattering effect on our brain and our attention span.

Many studies support the fact that humans cannot multi task, we rapidly shift attention between tasks which does not allow us enough time to give these items our full concentration. This effects our proficiency and dilutes our abilities.

It is my intention to try to devote my full attention to everything, single mindedly, whether it is reading a book, answering emails or having a conversation with someone in a bar. If we take the time to pause, we can clearly define our next goals and the next task we need to address, making it easier to avoid hopping from one task to another and back again in quick succession.

Remember to focus. F.O.C.U.S.

Follow one course until success.

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The Productivity Project, By Chris Bailey: A Review

Chris Bailey is young, well younger than me anyway, maybe that’s not so young anymore.

When I saw his fresh face on the inside cover of his book on Productivity I wasn’t sure he had the experience to be a “productivity guru.”

Experience he has, a whole year which he spent trying every productivity technique under the sun.

The book is an easy read and full of useful information. My favourite tips are as follows.

  1. Meditate.
  2. Drink water.
  3. Get enough sleep.
  4. Nap.
  5. Turn off notifications.
  6. The rule of three.
  7. Keep your work week under 50 hours.
  8. Catch your ideas.
  9. If it doesn’t work, don’t do it.

I had some of these practises in place before I read the book, but here’s how I put them into action.


Chris explains that one of the results of meditation is to create space in your brain and that regular practisers create approximately 30% more space for memory, leaving you with more “battery life” to concentrate.

I started small, with 5-10 minutes a day and built up to 30 minutes a day at one stage. 30 minutes didn’t work with my schedule and routine, but here’s the key, instead of not meditating, I just cut it back to a manageable time. That’s 20 minutes for me and I have stuck with that consistently for probably three years now.

I think that’s a great rule you can apply to almost any habit. If you feel you are struggling with it then instead of abandoning it, just reduce the time you are putting into it.

Drink water:

This is not something I have worked at as consistently as I should, but what I try to do is start the morning with a pint of water with some lemon juice in it. It helps you wake up quicker as you are dehydrated after a nights sleep. Lemon is also a great way to hydrate.

It’s helps to prepare this the previous night. As I have said in my previous blogs, a successful morning starts the night before.

Get enough sleep:

As I just mentioned, a great morning routine starts the night before (Click here to see my previous blog on this subject).

Getting enough sleep is so important. Chris compares people in today’s society who are sleep deprived to hoards of mindless zombies, roaming around, unable to operate at full capacity.

I have also read that a good nights sleep depends on the amount of sunlight you receive during the day, bringing things full circle. Sleep depends (somewhat) on sunlight, and daytime alertness, productivity and mindfulness depend on sleep.

Chris also talks about blue light and caffeine. Blue light – ie. screens should be avoided at least an hour before sleep. There are blue light glasses you can buy and filters for your devices if you really need to use them before bed but my general rule is no screen time after 8:45pm. The same applies in the morning, the only screen time I have before 7:00 is to use my meditation app (insight timer).

Caffeine is another one to watch out for. It will stay in your system for 8-14 hours so you should avoid drinking caffiene after 11:30am. Chris also recommends using caffeine strategically, as in timing it so that it will carry you through the low energy parts of the day. I was never into coffee so my caffeine intake is a cup of green tea early in the morning.


I was once asked in a team building exercise what my superpower is. My answer – the ability to fall asleep anywhere. We had a 10 hour layover in Toronto once, so we had time to explore downtown and as Theresa browsed the shops I sat down on one of the display couches and slept.

The author talks about the value of a short nap throughout your work day to boost your productivity or energy levels. For me the optimum time is about 12 minutes. Each time I put my head down for the “12 minutes” I feel like I will not sleep yet the alarm always wakes me. I say 12 minutes because it is not long enough to fall into a deep sleep and you will not have that groggy, heavy feeling when you wake.

Some people just can’t nap, but napping, in my opinion, is a skill that can be practised and learned, just like meditation. It started for me, years ago when I used to drive to different building sites all over Ireland. I might have a 3-4 hour drive home after a though days work. I always made sure to pull over before I felt too tired. A 10-15 minute nap and I would be good to drive safely for another hour and a half or so.

One word of caution, napping will not replace deep night time sleep as your body will not regenerate and repair as it does throughout the night.

Turning off notifications:

This ties back in to my morning and evening. Apple iPhones now have a great system called screen time, which will either limit your phone time or app time or lock you out completely. I restrict my phone so I cannot use it during the night or early morning. I can still receive phone calls if there is an emergency, but my phone will be in do not disturb mode. Another great feature which you can turn on automatically.


Screen shot of Screen Time from IPhone settings

Screen shot of Do Not Disturb from IPhone settings

One thing that annoys me a little is apps that constantly offer to turn on notifications. It’s not my thing. I have almost all notifications turned off. The author talks about the amount of time (25 minutes) it takes to get back into the flow of work after you have been interrupted,whether that be a device or another person.

I really believe that multi tasking is a fable, you simply cannot concentrate on more than one thing at a time. My own personal example is that when I’m in the office working away on something and an email pops up in the lower right corner I will immediately open it, lose my work flow and actually start working on the email. (There’s the start of 25 minutes to get back into the flow).

What I like to do to combat this is to put outlook into offline mode and only update my inbox at specific times or when I have fully finished a specific task.

The Rule of Three:

This simply means identifying three things you want to accomplish during the week ahead and also the day ahead. I only use this on a daily basis rather than a weekly basis, but when I sit down at my computer in the office I list my three most important tasks. Indeed, like everybody, we probably have one hundred and seven things on our to do list, but identifying the three most important let’s me see what the priority is. I also have a sense of achievement when I get through them, rather than feeling overwhelmed with the amount I have left to do.

These three tasks may take me an hour or the rest of the day but once they’re complete I can move onto something else or head home knowing I achieved something.

Keep your work week under 50 hours:

This can be a tricky one to put into practise and stick to. Sometimes you cannot avoid working over 50 hours, especially when you work for yourself or if you are a full time parent but the authors experiments (along with other independent research) showed that any work over the fifty hour mark was not productive.

In other words the same amount of work was acieved in 80 hours as was achieved in 50 hours.

I try to stick to this in my own working life by getting out of the office between 5 and 6 every day and not engaging in work (unless absolutely necessary) at home. France has actually made it illegal for companies to contact employees outside of work hours.

35-40 hours is your most productive working time for the week.

Catch your ideas:

Make lists. Many people (Richard Branson among them) carry a notebook everywhere to write down ideas (I suppose everyone does nowadays with a smart phone).

This frees up space in your mind rather than having your brain work away in the background to remember tasks.

I write everything down and have done so for years now. Probably 90% of what I write down is never used but the other 10% consists of important things I need to remember and also creative ideas (like my pending historical fiction novel and these blogs).

I also catch all my work tasks electronically so I am not spending brain power trying to think of what I need to work on. It is easily accessible in my calendar or email with reminders set up to ensure it gets done.

SIRI or voice memo is a great way to note things which pop into your brain when your driving. Just record it or ask SIRI to send yourself an email.

This makes a big difference to our overburdened brain. Have you ever gone to the supermarket without a list and found yourself overwhelmed by everything on offer?

You can also (if possible) address easy tasks right away. Why put it on a to do list if it isn’t worth it? David Allen (author of Getting Things Done) recommends that if a task takes less than two minutes then it doesn’t go on a to do list.

My caution here is to make sure it does not interrupt your work flow. I do not recommend jumping off something you are in the middle of to address a two minute task as the interruption to your work flow is a lot more than two minutes.

If it doesn’t work, don’t do it:

Another really interesting thing I learned from this book is that if it doesn’t work for you then don’t do it.

The author struggled to get up at 5:30am for some time before coming to the conclusion that it didn’t work for him. Many productivity “gurus” talk about using the morning time to your advantage but this isn’t necessarily what will work for you.

Determine your most productive and energy filled times and use them to your advantage.


The verdict:

Overall The Productivity Project is an quick and easy read and has lots of useful info. It’s also written for real, everyday people rather than CEOs and Hedge Fund investors (Whatever the hell that is), though the advise does apply to everyone.

I recommend this book if you work a regular 9-5 job like me, or if you feel overwhelmed by the amount of work you have in your general life.

If you want to know more about Chris Bailey and his productivity experiments have a look at his blog by clicking Here.



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