Bad Habits: Multitasking

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Bad Habits: Multitasking

January 12, 2012

“I’m scheduling an appointment with a psychologist,” I declared two days ago. I was convinced I had ADHD. Really, I did. I’d become increasingly aware of my inability to focus on a single task without inevitably drifting off to other thoughts. Okay, what else do I need to do after this? I’d better write that down. I wonder which one I should do first. How long will that take? In the midst of completing one task, I was already thinking about the next thing I had to do. It was getting to the point where it was starting to disrupt my life.

How many of you have multiple browsers open when you’re trying to complete an assignment on your laptop? You check your phone every three minutes, you’re listening to music, chatting with some buddies, perhaps participating in some online forums, Facebook stalking, and your Word document is open on your desktop… somewhere. How much complete attention can you really devote to all of those things?

[Tweet “You think you’re being efficient by multitasking, but you’re actually losing time.”] The more complex the task is, the more mental energy you use and the more time it takes to re-focus when you switch from task to task. Is that really ADHD, or do you think that maybe it’s simply technology overload?

Off the top of your head, list your three worst time-wasting habits. Don’t have three? Lies. List them. Mine are as follows, in no particular order:

1. Not completing my thoughts. I have this odd tendency to cut myself off when I’m articulating something as soon as another idea pops into my head. I sometimes find myself going off on two or three different tangents and only finishing the last tho –

2. Picking at my hair. I acquired this habit when I saw a friend of mine doing this same thing about eight years ago. I’m sure you’ve done it, too: you see someone doing something peculiar, and you try it out yourself out of curiosity. I got hooked, and now I find myself anxious if I can’t pick at my split ends; there’s something so curiously fun about it. Unfortunately, engaging in this activity causes me to remove myself from other things I should be doing, like actively participating in a conversation or paying attention in class.

3. Checking my phone obsessively. I have three different e-mail accounts on my phone, as well as Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media. Can you imagine how often that innocent red light flashes? Every few minutes, my eyes flicker over to the screen to see if there’s anything new waiting for me.

I think the large majority of us can agree that the third habit is one that we could stand to improve a little. How many of you develop a slight tic when you’re away from your phone for more than half an hour? How many of you pull out your iPhone, Blackberry, Android, or what have you in the middle of a conversation with someone and rudely scroll through your texts and e-mails? I’m guilty of this. If I’ve done this in front of you, I’m sorry. It’s become a compulsion – a bad habit.

I want you to pick a bad habit that you would like to fix. That’s an important part; you have to actually want to correct your behavior. There’s no point in making plans to become a better you if you’re going to come up with excuses and fight it every step of the way. There has to be a desire here.

I’m highlighting my phone-checking habit because I believe it plays a key role in contributing to my ADHD-like symptoms and it’s something concrete that I can pinpoint for the time being. It’s a habit that I know I can eliminate entirely if only I make a concerted effort to do so.

Next, think of one thing you can start doing differently to change that. I urge you not to be overly ambitious. Take baby steps. You didn’t form your habit overnight; don’t expect it to go away so quickly.

To attack this phone-checking habit of mine, I’ve come up with a rule: I’m only going to check my phone once every hour-block. This means I can technically take a peek at 10:57, and then again at 11:01, but not another time until after 12:00. Doing so will allow me to be more productive and efficient, which also means I will be able to afford myself more sleep or move onto other things. Think the world’s going to end if you don’t answer a text message for an hour? What if someone needs me, you say? If they really needed you right away, they’d call. People don’t call each other enough anymore anyway.

Two exceptions, however: when I’m not supposed to be working, and when I actually need to contact someone for a reason, I can break the rule.

Now, execute.

Be honest with and accountable to yourself. Don’t forget that you’re the one who decided you were going to make the change in the first place. Take it one day at a time. I think you’ll find yourself surprised at just how much you can get done by simply removing one distraction.

I’ll be checking in a few months from now to report on my progress with this bad habit. I doubt I’ll have to resort to drugs to help me; after all, the United States consumes 80% of the world’s Ritalin – do I really need to add to that? If all goes well, it will no longer be an issue to me by then, and I’ll have saved myself hours and hours of time.

Never underestimate the power of habits. Good or bad, they rule your life.

“First we form habits, then they form us. Conquer your bad habits or they will conquer you.” – Rob Gilbert

18 Comments
  1. Rodzilla 8 years ago

    Might want to look into mindfulness based practices. I’ve found them really beneficial.

    • Sohee Lee 8 years ago

      I am! 😉

  2. Shazkar 8 years ago

    at my office, i have 3 browser windows open, each with… 10+ tabs… many of them just facebook, twitter, fitocracy and youtube. I gotta stop doing this. Even when I’m at home.

    Solution: use something like http://e.ggtimer.com/pomodoro
    so I work for 25 minutes, and then waste time for 5

    • Sohee Lee 8 years ago

      Just think of how much time you could be saving yourself… oof.

    • Katie 7 years ago

      Pomodoro is excellent. Just started using it, and I’ve seen ridiculous gains in productivity.

  3. Brian Danley 8 years ago

    Sohee,
    Looks to me that you’re already on the right track with your Short Attention Span Theatre…after all, you were able to complete this blog post 🙂

  4. I need to fix my short attention span. I went on to read Twitter twice while reading through this article, for instance. Bleh, my concentration sucks! 😛

    • Sohee Lee 8 years ago

      I think that’s something the large majority of us have a problem with nowadays. Too much technology.

  5. Myke Macapinlac 8 years ago

    Great article hombre! Reminds me of this article I read about the human brain’s capacity to process 500 words a minute while an average person can only speak 150 so there’s that emptiness in between that we try and fill by “multitasking.” Anyway, you’re article is on point and I really enjoyed reading it! Props to JC Deen for posting it on his wall!

    • Sohee Lee 8 years ago

      Thanks for reading, Myke!

  6. FlowEternal 8 years ago

    Hey Sohee,

    I have been guilty of bogging myself down with many different browser windows open. What has helped me is to never switch tabs or minimize a window, but only close them. That way I can still load up many browser tabs if I need to, but it forces me to focus on and complete one at a time.

    I noticed in the past that my ability to focus and complete my train of thought cleanly was tainted by my lack of focus in other activities that I did daily. Once I started making an effort to focus on one thing at a time until it is complete my thought process followed suit. How you do anything is how you do everything. Right?

    Now I haven’t had a problem with picking at my hair (I shave my head), but would putting your hair up stop you from picking at it?

    For phone-checking only once per hour maybe set an alarm or alert every hour on the hour so that it isn’t tempting to check multiple times around the hour which allows for more focus on other things?

    • Sohee Lee 8 years ago

      Yep, in fact I do tie my hair back so I can’t pick at it. It’s saved me a lot of anxiety.

      For the phone, I’ve found that if I put it out of sight and leave it only in phone-call mode, I don’t really think about it. As long as I’m keeping busy with other things.

  7. Ben 8 years ago

    this reminded me of something one of my professors told me while we we’re discussing how perfection is unattainable “Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice creates habits”

    • Sohee Lee 8 years ago

      That’s a great quote!

  8. Chris 8 years ago

    I find that if you turn off your laptop and TV everything around you slow down….

  9. edison 7 years ago

    Hii, just a quick advise on the emails. If you really use all 3 email accounts and don’t have a very good reason to keep them apart, you can forward the mails from lets say two of the accounts to the third one leaving you just one account to check. Alternatively create a fourth account that you have on you phone to which you can forward all your mails to. Don’t know if you have thought about it, just a good way to organize your mails : )

    • Sohee Lee 7 years ago

      Hi Edison – I did try that for a little bit, but after a few days I ended up separating them all again. I like keeping my personal email account personal, my academic account academic, and my professional account professional. It was a little overwhelming having everything all on the same page 🙂

  10. Enoch 7 years ago

    I see the multitasking thing at work a lot. People will try to do 2 or 3 things at once. I did that too and realized that just increased my workload. Now, I place a small pile at my desk. Every day, that’s what I need to do. The rest is not urgent. Now, I’m all caught up on my work while everyone else is still staying behind to finish theirs. And the email is the worst. A new message comes in and you’re just so tempted to reply so you can file it away. Now I just print it if it’s not urgent and place it in the “tomorrow” pile. The best part about recognizing and cutting these habits is the relief you get afterward. It’s like… becoming free!

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