We all have a dozen things that need to get done at once, so we multitask. But research is pretty much unanimous: Multitasking is less productive than singletasking, and it actually degrades your cognitive functions across the board. The first thing to go? Your ability to assess whether or not you’re actually being productive.
But when we have a lot of tasks that we want to work on at once, our brains freak out. We think we can’t spend an entire hour focused on a marketing report, or our client calls will fall behind. In the end, we flail, we procrastinate or we search the web for cat pictures. And let’s face it: There are a lot of cat pictures just waiting to be found.
If you want singletasking quality, while still making progress on several fronts in the same work session, there is a way to do it: Speed date your tasks.
Speed Dating Your Tasks: The Technique
Speed dating your tasks is easy:
- Grab a blank piece of paper.
- On the paper, list the activities you’re going to do.
- Grab a stopwatch and set it for 10 minutes.
- Work on your first task for 10 minutes.
- The instant the buzzer goes off, put a checkmark by the task you just worked on, and switch to the next task.
- After one pass through all your tasks, take a five-minute break and do it again.
You can use a smartphone or paper to list your tasks. I prefer paper because checking off a task at the end of an interval is much easier than manipulating a computer interface.
If you use a pocket notebook and pencil, speed dating for productivity is easy and portable! And since it’s portable, you’ll discover you can use it in a number of surprising ways.
How to Speed Date Your Tasks at Work
Work is where speed dating shines. You have a full to-do list: write a travel expense report, prepare a presentation, scan a bunch of documents, and prepare the department’s weekly numbers, too. Use speed dating to get everything done: Spend 10 minutes writing out your expense report, then when your stopwatch says time’s up, move on to the presentation, the scanning, the numbers. Then take a five-minute break and begin again.
When you have several important projects to do at once, your brain wants to think about all of them at once (thus the attractiveness of multitasking). When you’re writing your expense reports, you’re thinking, But I have a presentation I’m ignoring! And when working on your presentation, you’re thinking about the expense reports that aren’t done yet. With speed dating, you have a list and you have time limits. While you’re working on your expense report, your brain knows that in a mere 10 minutes, you’ll be working on your presentation. Secure in that knowledge, it lets go of the nagging and you’ll find yourself able to hyper-focus on the expense reports until your interval is done.
How to Speed Date Exercise at the Gym
I hate exercise, so I speed date the gym. My trainer Steve insists I bench press three sets of 15 reps. That’s 45 reps, plus rest periods—that’s going to take forever! Wouldn’t it be much, much easier to skip the bench press and instead just stand around listening to music on my iPod, thinking really hard about doing the bench press? (Steve says no, but if I turn the volume up really loud, I can pretend I didn’t hear him.)
Your brain resists large tasks, but if it thinks a task will be quick and easy, it’s willing to jump right in. So use speed dating. Grab a trainer at the gym and ask them to design a circuit for you. A circuit is a series of exercises that work complementary muscles. You do them in rapid succession, with little or no pause in between. While you’re working the muscles from the second exercise, the muscles from the first exercise are taking their recovery time.
A circuit makes each exercise seem smaller, and easier to start. You’re just concentrating on the current set of the current exercise, rather than the entire block of sets you have planned for this workout.
How to Speed Date Your Tasks at Home
Because we’re so busy being productive at work, stuff at home can sometimes build up. There’s laundry to fold, ceiling molding to install and an ever-growing stack of books to read “someday.” Set your timer, grab your clothes and start folding.
When the timer goes off, stop immediately. If you’re halfway through folding a pair of underwear, leave it sprawled ungracefully on your folding table. Move on to the ceiling moldings, pronto.
Speed dating keeps you engaged, which is why you want to stop in the middle of a task. Stopping mid-task feels incomplete. Your brain wants completion, and the sense of incompletion will draw you right back into the task on the next go-around. You’ll be able to pick up right where you left off. Next time around, the instant you finish an interval with your underpants half-folded, that piece of molding hanging by only two nails will call you right back into hanging molding.
Singletasking and Speed Dating Wins the Race
Multitasking fails because it splits your attention among several things at once, often including interruptions. Speed dating does the opposite. It uses the brain’s ability to focus on one thing at a time—it just does so in rapid succession. Choosing a small set of tasks to switch between means you always know what’s coming up, and it’s easy to switch back into a task that you stopped partway through.