NBH013: Busting the Myth of Multi-Tasking

Today, we're talking about multi-tasking. In college (probably before that, but I remember in college) I was actually taught to multi-task. I remember I took a class, or some seminar, or something about how I should be doing more than one thing at one time - and that is the way that I would excel at college.

Maybe thinking about the next task I was supposed to do while I was doing one task. If I'm walking across campus, I should be thinking about a paper I needed to write. And this was the culture about doing more than one thing at once, which made you productive. And we're proud of our multitasking as we grew up. And we can tell people “I'm such a good multi-tasker because I can do all these things at once!” And ultimately, right now, science has shown that actually we cannot to do more than one task at the same time.

This is upsetting news; I know. What's really happening is that we're toggling between two tasks. So right now, if you're reading this blog post and also working on something else, you're just going back and forth. You're reading this, then you're doing your other thing, then you're reading and your other thing. And of course it works! Especially for the smart professionals that lawyers are, we're able to go back and forth. And so when we're going back and forth, that's fine because whatever we missed we're creating a picture of that and we can fill in the blanks. But really it is harder to move our attention back and forth between two tasks and we're ultimately less productive. Actually, we're tiring ourselves out. So you may be able to do this for a while and then it will catch up with you and you're not able to do it as much. Or you just burn out from this habit of having lots of tasks, lots of windows open in your life and trying to toggle back and forth.

There's a new trend. I don't know how much speed it's catching, but it’s called mono-tasking (MONO basically meaning one). Instead of multi-tasking, how about doing one task at a time? Do one thing at a time! This is revolutionary. I understand because it goes against everything that we've been doing, that we've been taught. But actually focus on the one task that's in front of you. And when you do that, you increase your focus. You can concentrate better on that task. Just think about what a better job you do when you're actually focused and in the zone. It would likely take less time overall to do the task if you are just doing that one task. They say that you can't do everything. I disagree. I believe you can do everything you desire, just not at the same time.

We're often in a rush to get things done because we want to move on to the next thing or we don't even want to finish the thing we have in front of us. We want to get onto the next thing. But then we just have this pile of started/unfinished projects and we're not really doing what we want to do. We're not really moving forward. We're not leveraging what we've done. If we slow down, and focus on one thing at a time, we can actually get that thing done, actually complete a task. We know that that's what we love to do as humans. And then we can move on to the next and it's a progression. And we've done it to become lawyers. We would complete our projects, our schoolwork, to be able to get to the next level of school, and then we graduated, and we took the bar, then we had a job, and then we got the next job. And same thing is true with our firms. We do that. We've learned a lot.

The learning curve is very real. We learn things and we move on to the next thing to learn. So we're always learning. However, if we can continue that in a more micro level with our daily workload, this means fewer projects left unfinished and more dreams realized. And this whole multi-tasking can go away. Or we can notice when we're trying to do it and just honor it and let it go away. And we can embrace this idea of mono-tasking. There's another name for mono-tasking. I don't know if you know it. It's called mindfulness. Mindfulness is a buzzword. And people don't know what it means.

It's getting to be more popular in the legal profession and people equate it with lots of different things. But to dispel any disbelief or skepticism about mindfulness and whether it's for you, it's the same thing. It means paying attention to what you're doing, it is being mindful. We don't want to be mindless. We don't want to not pay attention to what we're working on. So this means paying attention. And I did a talk to a group of lawyers and I was talking about mindfulness. And one of the attorneys said, “I'm not used to your language, but I do know that when I pay attention, I feel better.” And that's what I'm talking about. We feel better when we're so connected with what we're doing. And when you pay attention to what you're doing, you can take risks. I know when I'm settled down in my work, I can push myself to take risks, to think of things differently, to be more creative. We can plunge into our life and work more readily.

When you pay attention to what you're doing, you can plunge into your life and work more readily. Your efforts are more satisfying and enriching and you won't be as distracted by what you could be doing, what you should be doing, what comes next, what is unfinished. You focus on what you're doing right now and focus on completing that. Whatever that means. And honestly, completion may not mean what you think it means. When you're really present, it means working on it until you're finished working on it. But maybe the task that you thought it was is not what it really is. It is doing something for a while and then feeling complete and then doing something else for a while. I mean, research is an example, and writing: we do it for a while and then we can feel at peace with it.

Because nothing is ever finished; we're always able to make things better. But if we are trying to multi-task and we're not even getting to that point of satisfaction or completion, it's a very unfulfilled and unsatisfying life. And it's like, why are we here? Why do we do all this? Why are we lawyers? So if we could focus on what you're doing right now, especially in your law practice, and avoiding multi-tasking, we're busting the myth that it is going to make you more productive. If we can embrace (even sometimes) this idea that multi-tasking is actually getting in your way and it is not what is going to get you to feel better, realize your dreams, feel more fulfilled, take on that next project. If you can focus on what you're doing right now in this moment, you will realize your dreams. You'll be able to be successful in whatever way you want to be.

If multi-tasking is hard for you, this is great news. It is supposed to be hard. It is kind of impossible. And so let's shift slowly. You can just pay attention. Pay attention to paying attention to what you're doing in the moment and catch yourself. Meaning, notice when you feel like you should be doing something else. When it feels too good to be true that you're actually working on one project, the other projects will be there. Everything will be there in the future. Focus on the present, in this moment, what is in front of you, and you will be more productive.

Thank you to the sponsor of this podcast episode and blog post, Nankin & Verma PLLC located in Rockville, Maryland. Their Immigration practice handles both corporate and individual immigration matters. And their Litigation practice handles dispute resolution, breach of contract, airline litigation, and formation and reorganization of business entities. Nankin & Verma PLLC can be found at http://www.nankin.com/ For a free copy of “The New Billable Hour” book and other resources, visit www.newbillablehour.com.

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