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If you are anything like me, you probably multitask without a second thought. In fact, it is probably a rare occurrence that you find yourself focused on a singular task.
To be perfectly honest, I have a hard time remembering the last time I managed to focus all of my attention on just one thing. There is always so much to do, and I want to do it all, all at once. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but not always a good thing either.
While multitasking does often seem like a necessity, and as much as I tell myself I’m being efficient, psychologists (and my husband) tell us that too much multitasking isn’t healthy. In fact, it may be burning us out and causing undue stress. Plus, it can actually make us less productive and less efficient, because multitasking actually increases the likelihood of critical mistakes and errors.
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So what’s a busy girl (or guy) to do? Is there a way to get things done and yes, even multitask sometimes, without losing our sanity? After all, there are only 24 hours in a day–sometimes doubling up on tasks is just a reality of life!
Over the years, despite my propensity for biting off more than I can chew sometimes, I have discovered a few tricks for working smarter, not harder and getting things done as efficiently as possible. These 10 smart ways to multitask might just help you too!
1. Make a List…for Everything
Don’t think of your to-do list as just another extra step or a waste of time—they’re absolutely critical. Trust me, writing a list streamlines your activities, helping you group tasks together and be more efficient. Plus, you have too much to remember anyway! Give your brain a break and write a quick list.
Take, for example, a simple grocery store list. While it may seem silly to write down the three items you need to buy, how many of us have returned home and said, “Shoot! I forgot the ______!” And how often did you forget the most important item? Or maybe you returned with two items, but forgot the other one…?
The average person can only remember four items at once (seriously), so trying to remember more than that is just asking for a forgetful moment. Taking 30 seconds to write a short list before jumping into a task can ensure you hit all your critical objectives (even if those objectives are simply milk, bread and eggs).
2. Keep a Detailed Calendar
Writing down ALL your family’s activities in your calendar can really help with time management. Some people prefer an electronic calendar, while some prefer paper—the important thing is to find a calendar solution you’ll actually use. Simply scheduling a 1:00-1:30pm lunch break can help you plan, prioritize and determine what additional tasks you can complete during that time.
Don’t forget to give yourself some wiggle room. Things come up. Life happens. You can’t plan in that flat tire or a burnt dinner, BUT you can plan in a little extra time to deal with life’s little surprises. Bookend each scheduled task with fifteen- to thirty-minute catch-up periods, to avoid stress overload.
I like to keep a list of “whenever” quick-tasks (calls I need to make, correspondence, etc.), so when I do have a little extra wiggle room, I can tackle a few quick items so they don’t end up indefinitely on the back burner.
Bonus tip: Plan a Freezer cooking day to take care of all your meals for the entire week.
3. Get More Done with SMART Goals
Every Monday morning, write down a few big goals you’d like to (or need to) achieve that week. Make each of your goals SMART. That’s Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. “Be more organized” is not a SMART goal. Instead, try something like this: “To get this family more organized, create a DIY Command Center and hang it up in the kitchen by Friday.” This goal is now super specific, so you’ll know when you’ve achieved success!
Be sure to schedule in the steps required to achieve each goal. For example, if your ultimate goal is to lose two pounds this week, write out your exercise plan on your calendar, plan out all meals, schedule a time to weigh in, and add a fifteen-minute spot each day to record items in your food diary.
4. Be Smart About Your Smartphone
Our families benefit when we are fully present and in the moment. Checking your phone, reading or doing other distracting activities can be hurtful and rude, and can ultimately damage our relationships.
Unless you’re waiting on a critical (read: emergency) message, turn off the alert on your smartphone for texts and emails. Try to limit your email checking to once an hour or less, and set aside a specific time twice a day to return messages.
While Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest are super fun and great for networking, crafting and sharing, sometimes social media can eat up time and distract us from real life. While online connections are important, try to limit your social media time to a set period once or twice a day. Remember that responding to someone’s Facebook status does not strengthen your personal connection to him or her in the same way as true interaction.
Why not just try removing social media alerts from your phone for a week or two? You might just marvel at your efficiency, presence of mind and freedom from distractions.
5. Stick to Multitasking-Friendly Activities
There are times when multitasking is most efficient. For example, try ironing while you catch up on phone calls, or practice your balance by standing on one foot while you brush your teeth, or cook dinner while doing the laundry.
You don’t always need to be fully engaged in every activity. Watching television is a perfect example. Catching up on a craft project, photo sorting or organizing a dresser drawer can be a great use of time while you’re watching a favorite show.
6. Don’t Overextend Yourself
It’s far better to take on one or two items and do them completely, thoroughly and well with your full concentration, than it is to try to do five things at once and fail at all of them. If you’ve planned ahead and mapped out your day on the calendar, and you can see a convenient moment to throw in a load of laundry or whip up a batch of brownies—go for it, then continue about your work.
However, if you have a batch of brownies in the oven and a load of laundry in, you’re late for two carpool pickups, but you need to make a phone call first, the television is on, and you’re trying to finish a church festival flyer—well, that’s when brownies get burned, washers flood (or clothes get forgotten and get that mildew stink), phone calls and pickups get mixed up, and typos happen.
Instead, schedule two tasks that can be done simultaneously but still deliberately and without requiring full concentration. Consult your to-do list, and schedule each item on your calendar. Taking a few minutes to make those critical planning steps can really help later on.
7. Set a Timer
If you still find yourself distracted or feeling frazzled, try setting a timer. It may sound counter-intuitive to add the pressure of time to an already stressful activity, but by setting aside a measurable and specific time frame, you can allow yourself to fully engage and block out distractions with the promise that there will be a time to visit them later.
Give yourself an allotment of time to really focus on a task, whether it’s writing, work, paying bills or something else, and focus fully on the given task at hand. When you get the urge to open up an internet browser and Google something, or to switch to a different task, add it to your to-do list and go back to concentrating on the task at hand, knowing you will address it when the timer dings.
8. Get Past Procrastination
Tasks we put off again and again often give us more stress than necessary. If you focus for just 20 minutes right at the start of the day, you can make a lot of headway on even the most undesirable task. I like to tell myself that anyone can do something for just 20 minutes.
After you’ve made it through, move on. Give yourself the reward of putting away the difficult task and scheduling another place for it on your schedule. After one or two tackles, you might find that it’s not so bad. Often the procrastination of a task takes more time than the actual completion. Don’t let yourself get bogged down by ruminating on how much you despise the task at hand and don’t want to do it. Whether it’s plumbing, or cleaning the garage, or taxes—tackle it in small chunks and get it over with.
Oftentimes, we procrastinate on back-burner tasks until they absolutely HAVE to be done. At that point, we’re time-crunched, tired and facing late nights of misery. By addressing these no-fun items first and using the 20-minute approach, you can avoid the three hours of last-minute, forced multitasking frazzle.
9. Focus on the Most Urgent Items
Each day you should approach what you must get done, what you should get done and what you’d like to get done and then prioritize accordingly. Narrow the “multi” down to your most important tasks, and give them your all. When you approach your list and your calendar, schedule in the items that really must be done (including that difficult one). Then move the rest to tomorrow.
Oftentimes, when multi-tasking in a disorganized fashion, we get into this frantic mode where we try to shove in extra tasks just to have them done in the name of efficiency. While this can mean that a lot gets done, sometimes the most important items don’t get the right amount of attention.
So, while we should not procrastinate, we also need to prioritize. Sometimes it’s okay to say no or to take store-bought treats to school instead of homemade. When you’re making dinner for a sick friend, pick up something she can re-heat later, rather than trying to get a hot meal out during the five o’clock rush.
I’ll be the first to admit that it is really hard to relax when it seems like there is so much to do, but occasionally, we need to stop, reflect, and nurture ourselves a little. As women, and particularly as moms, we often put ourselves last and try frantically to get everything done for everyone else. Not only does this cheat us out of happiness and enjoyment, but it cheats our husbands and children out of having a relaxed, happy and fun mom and spouse.
Allow yourself to disconnect from your phone, your computer, and all the to-do lists, and find time for those things that nurture you and bring you peace and happiness. Relax and do it without guilt. If exercise is very important to you and it helps you feel good every day, then get it on your calendar and keep your appointment to yourself. Maybe you’re a baker and you love decorating cookies every week, or maybe you’re a reader and you love to get lost in a good book. You need “you time” so you can be your best self every day for your family.
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Multitasking done right can be an incredible way to get more done in less time. By approaching your to-do list in an organized and deliberate way, you’ll find that you can multitask and get things done efficiently and accurately, yet still have time for the important things. The key is prioritizing and organization. Just be sure to make yourself a priority as well—it will help you put your most efficient self forward.