You have your morning coffee in hand, you've just finished your daily scrum, and you sit down at your computer to start your day. Up pops a Slack message. You scan your emails, then bounce back to Slack. You look at your calendar to see when your next meeting is—much to your surprise, it's starting in 15 minutes. You get back to your desk and check your to-do list to see what tasks you can fit in before your next meeting, but one of your co-workers asks for your help to solve a problem. Before you know it, half of your day has disappeared.
Many of my days are spent like this, juggling multiple tasks. There are moments I find myself staring at my computer with my brain at a complete halt. If you, too, find yourself in this situation, it's probably a sign from your brain to take a break. You could be suffering from too much multitasking and decision fatigue.
On average, adults make about 35,000 decisions every day! They can be simple decisions, such as what to eat or what to wear, or decisions that require more thought, such as where to go on your next vacation or which career to pursue. Every day you are faced with a plethora of choices to occupy your mind.
Not only are you faced with making thousands of decisions each day, but multitasking has also become the norm for busy and in-demand professionals. The problem is, multitasking hurts more than it helps. The more you divide your attention through multitasking, the more your productivity decreases.
In a study, self-described multitaskers were asked to switch back and forth between tasks at a pace that felt natural to them. A control group was asked to do one job at a time in sequence. The multitasking group performed far less effectively. Each time they switched tasks, there was a slowdown because it took time to time recall the details and the steps they'd done so far. This wound up making everything take roughly 40% longer and led to lower levels of accuracy overall. People who focused on one task at a time spent less time overall and finished all the tasks.
The mind functions optimally when it can focus on one activity at a time. Choosing mindfulness over multitasking will result in better feelings throughout your day and help you do better work.
"Mindfulness" can be defined as being conscious and aware. It really is about being present in the moment and focusing your attention on what's at hand. There are many advantages to mindfulness in the workplace. The trick is creating boundaries and habits that allow you to give each task your full attention.
Take a proactive approach and create a prioritized plan of the items that must get done each day. This will allow you to make real progress on a few things that are important instead of being reactive. Every item that goes on your to-do list should be discrete, clear, and actionable. Focus on three to five tasks per day.
3 ways to take a break during your workday
Don't forget to plan breaks throughout your day. The brain needs a few minutes of rest every hour to recuperate and to avoid burnout. Taking mini-breaks is good for your mental health and leads to increased productivity.
Here are three easy ways to incorporate breaks into your day:
1. Move your body
Take 10 minutes to get out of your chair and go for a short walk. If you're pressed for time, stand up and stretch for two minutes. Changing the position of your body and focusing on the present moment will help relieve the mental tension that has built up in your mind.
2. Laugh more
Take a break to talk with your friends and colleagues at work. Laughter decreases stress hormones and triggers the release of endorphins, the body's natural feel-good chemicals. A little laughter break helps relax your mind and is also good for your soul.
3. Breathe deeply
Reset your mind and body with a two-minute break to breathe deeply into your belly. Deep breathing calms your mind and body, improves oxygen flow, and gives you a natural energy boost.
- Sit up tall with a straight spine, bring your awareness to your belly, and allow it to soften and relax.
- Begin with a slow, deep inhalation for a count of three, filling your belly, then rib cage, then upper chest with oxygen.
- Pause for a second, then exhale from your upper chest, rib cage then belly, drawing your belly in towards your spine at the end.
- Pause again, then repeat.
The next time you find yourself at a standstill or pressuring yourself to finish a task when your mind is not in the flow, try some of the tips above. It's better to take a short break and allow yourself to reset rather than trying to power through. Your body and brain will thank you.
Sarah Wall will present Mindless multitasking: a dummy's guide to productivity, at DrupalCon in Seattle, April 8-12, 2019.
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