Monday, July 18, 2011

Single Tasking

This follows-up from the post from last week which examines the work of Leo Babauta (1). He had recommended that we use simple focus to help us be more efficient at work and get more done. He noted that we typically find ourselves multi-tasking and he suggests that there are 3 reason to not do so: (1) It is less efficient, because you need to continually switch gears to do so; (2) it is more complicated to potentially can lead to greater error and fatigue; and (3) it can be “crazy-making,” where we need to find calm. So he offers suggestions on how to single-task.

1. He recommends that when you get arrive in the morning, work on the most important task of the day, and don’t do anything else until this is completed. Take a break and then begin work on the second-most important task. Get that much done and your day is already golden.

2. When you are working on a task, turn off all other distractions, including email and cell phone and try not to answer your land-line phone. Focus on the task at hand.

3. When the urge to check email occurs, take a breath and refocus on what you are doing.

4. If other work arrives while you are at your original work, put it aside and return to the task.

5. Every now and again, look at the newly arrived work and reconfigure what is most important. Process emails and phone calls at a predetermined interval.

6. If an urgent interruption occurs, and they will, make notes of what you are doing, what your thoughts are on the task you were working on so that when you return to it you can pick up where you left off.

7. Take breaks every now and again- get up, stretch, go outside, stay sane.

I find I can do much of this, but that I tend to answer emails very quickly. I am trying to be less aware of the urgent need to do so, since that need is always present. But it requires attention.

When I return from RAGBRAI the week after next, I will discuss what Babauta suggests about focusing on the present.

1. Babuta L. The power of less. New York City, NY; Hyperion Press, 2009

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Simple Focus

Let me welcome you all back from what I hope has been a restful summer break. Over the past couple of weeks I have been able to catch my breath and think about the nature of the work I do. I have come to realize that in general terms I am all about efficiencies; put another way, I seem to be unable to look at a task and not find some way to do it better and more promptly. I suppose it is a good thing I was never a member of the Armed Services; I can see a superior officer giving me something to do and me telling the officer that there is a better way to do it…

But here is the point. We live in world that requires us to multitask all the time. We never seem to have time to focus only on a single task; that is, we no longer single task. All day long we are interrupted by email messages which ping as soon as they arrive, signaling that an answer is needed now; we have meetings where much is discussed but little is done; we have students walking in unannounced, and we have a need to make sure we get done all we need to get done. And this never seems to happen, so there is never any closure. I have, in the past, discussed the tyranny of email. But I recently found a little book entitled “The Power of Less” by Leo Babuta (1). It is subtitled “the fine art of limiting yourself to the essential… in business and in life.” And within the pages of this slim text is some very good advice.

The book provides a set of principles designed to help reduce the complexity of your life. One such is Principle 4: Focus is your most important tool in becoming more effective. And Babuta recommends that you should focus on a single goal rather than many; that is, he suggests we return to single tasking. Focus on what needs to be done now. Earlier in my career , I was incredibly single-minded when it came to getting jobs done. I could not rest until I had it completed, but I was able to focus on just that task and that task alone. It is rarer for me today to be able to do that; I have classes and preparation time, meetings, a need to contact faculty to help them with publication and teaching, IRB matters to attend to, research, my own scholarly work, and so on. All of this overlaps, and none have specific deadlines.

Babuta recommends that you focus on a goal, and maintain that focus; this will, more than anything, ensure you complete the task. He says to focus on now, keeping your mind on the present and not the future. This, he says, takes practice. He strongly says to focus on the task at hand, hoping that you can become so lost in the work that you may even lost track of time. To do so, you need to have no distractions, and that can be hard. And he says to focus on the positive. Replace negative thoughts with positive- yes, there is work to do, but that is why we are here, and that should be a joy. I remember my dad telling me that one of the greatest things is to wake up in the morning and look forward to going to work. I do, and consider myself fortunate in that regard, but can all of us say that?

I will have more to say about this next week.

1. Babuta L. The power of less. New York City, NY; Hyperion Press, 2009