The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time

Tony Schwartz, author of Be Excellent at Anything, remarks that the biggest cost to splitting our attention among various activities is to productivity.

He offers some advice on getting back on track: do the most important thing first in the morning; establish regular, scheduled times to think more long term, creatively, or strategically; and take real and regular vacations.

Why is it that between 25% and 50% of people report feeling overwhelmed or burned out at work?

It’s not just the number of hours we’re working, but also the fact that we spend too many continuous hours juggling too many things at the same time.

What we’ve lost, above all, are stopping points, finish lines and boundaries. Technology has blurred them beyond recognition. Wherever we go, our work follows us, on our digital devices, ever insistent and intrusive. It’s like an itch we can’t resist scratching, even though scratching invariably makes it worse.

The biggest cost — assuming you don’t crash — is to your productivity. In part, that’s a simple consequence of splitting your attention, so that you’re partially engaged in multiple activities but rarely fully engaged in any one. In part, it’s because when you switch away from a primary task to do something else, you’re increasing the time it takes to finish that task by an average of 25 per cent.

But most insidiously, it’s because if you’re always doing something, you’re relentlessly burning down your available reservoir of energy over the course of every day, so you have less available with every passing hour.

If you want to be even more productive, try sleeping.

Still curious? Schwartz is the co-author of a book a former boss recommended to me: The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. Also check out how to boost the productivity of computer programmers and engineers and why open plan offices suck.