Welcome to the next post in my Analyse Time Usage mini-series, part of the Looking-Glass Translations productivity programme!
This post is an adaptation of an article I originally wrote for the September 2013 issue of the ITI Bulletin, the journal of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting.

Last week I discussed free time-tracker tools and what they can do for you. This week I’ll be talking about one of the biggest time management problems that these tools can help us with.

 

Have you noticed just how busy we all are lately?

In today’s always-on world, it’s hard not to feel compelled to be. Who doesn’t admire that super-mum or go-getting colleague who is always able to fit so much into their day? Sure, they claim to work a 50-hour week, but they’re so productive! They’re busy, but that’s just because they’re squeezing the most out of every precious minute… and deep down, we’re all wondering how we can do the same.

 

How are they doing it all? ‘Multitasking’, they claim.

 

However, the cult of busy is one you should eye with suspicion.

Recent studies show that despite outward appearances, multitasking can actually be counter-productive.

In 2012, for instance, researchers found that multitaskers are far less productive than their more focused, ‘monotasking’ peers, while more recent studies show that multitasking actually makes you dumber and physically alters your brain!

To make matters worse, researchers have found that multitaskers typically feel the opposite is the case, and therefore attempt to multitask even more!

(Don’t despair, music-lovers! Studies indicate that music is the exception to the rule; far from impairing performance, listening to it while working can actually boost concentration!)

 

If you’re a multitasker, this creates a vicious circle that will drive down your productivity over the long term,

leaving you in the stressful position of having started plenty of jobs but finished none. Meanwhile, a 2009 study found that heavy multitaskers are less adept at task switching, as well as at filtering and recalling information – something that business owners, and especially interpreters – should not be ignoring, since these skills are key to performing well under pressure.

Language professionals are particularly susceptible to multitasking. We’re trained to revere multitasking and, particularly in the case of interpreters, we’re conditioned to prize the ability to multitask effortlessly above all else; after all, our very jobs depend on it.

Meanwhile, business owners must, by definition, wear lots of hats to be successful, making us prime candidates for so-called ‘chronic multitasking’.

 

So if multitasking is bad, how can you break the cycle?

Get out of denial

The first step in all recovery programmes is to recognise you have a problem. Attention span of a gnat? Having more lunch dates with your PC than SO lately? Just opened your 15th browser tab (no, you aren’t using all of them)? It’s time to stop lying to yourself!

Knowledge is power

Use a free time-tracking tool to find out how fragmented your workday has become. These tools will keep you honest; that job you thought took five hours only took two… and it’s high time you broke up with Twitter (if only temporarily!). The best of these tools will also allow you to block your most unproductive uses of time when you really need to focus. I discussed these tools in some detail in this post.

Eliminate distractions

Studies show that you need at least 15 minutes to refocus after an interruption. With this in mind, try to check your emails at specific times of the day or at specific intervals, and keep your workspace clear; don’t delegate tasks into piles to be dealt with later (follow the ‘one touch rule’). Act immediately on small jobs – they won’t take nearly as long as you think.

Prioritise

Your desire to multitask emerges when you start to feel overwhelmed by everything you think you have to do. In reality, though, you’re just trying to prioritise too much at once. Given that we all have 168 hours each week to get things done, this simply isn’t necessary. Plan your day and work through your to-do list one item at a time. If you feel the itch to multitask, check your list. If the task isn’t on it, don’t do it! Willpower is a muscle and you have to use it or lose it.

Build momentum

Progress begets progress. Once you start ticking things off your to-do list, you’ll feel much more motivated to keep going. The more you’re truly productive (rather than pretending to be), the more likely you’ll be to keep up the good work – and this will help to improve your output over the long term.

 

As in all things, moderation is key.

Ultimately, you have to learn to be disciplined and strike a balance between good time management and chronic multitasking. It’s a very fine line, but by following these tips, you’ll be sure to get yourself back on track – and will also have a better chance of not falling off the wagon!

 

Are you a self-confessed multitasker or a master of monotasking? Stand up and be counted in the comments!

 

Looking for more ways to ramp up your productivity?

Try these posts on for size:

 

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