Photo by Ben White on Unsplash
“For men and women alike, this journey is a the trajectory between birth and death, a human life lived. No one escapes the adventure. We only work with it differently.”
― Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life
How many times a day do you switch tasks? I’ve been keeping track of this for myself and in the 45 minutes since I sat down to write this blog I have switched tasks 8 times; 6 of them because I allowed myself to get distracted. I am sitting in my office with no one else present, so admittedly my attention could be more focused as these are “idyllic” conditions under which to complete this work AND this is work I find very satisfying. So what’s up with my distractibility? There is a lot of data around multi-tasking and context switching which can explain my behavior, but I also know some task switching is easier than others. What is happening this morning is my brain is being thrust into a task in a blunt way…it’s still trying to “let go” of the other things I was immersed in (e-mails, school lunch-making, dog walking, appointment setting, etc.). I just sat down to write without giving myself the grace or time to acknowledge that I have had a busy morning so far and I am not gently sliding into this work; some part of my brain is still trying to remember if I put carrots in kiddos lunch box and another part is re-thinking an e-mail I sent 10 minutes ago. I am plopping myself down to attend to this task because according to the clock it is the time I set aside to do this (…and GO!).
Our beautiful minds don’t work that way. Our beautiful minds were designed to support us in a deep and fulsome way when we allow ourselves to mentally set aside what it was we were doing, creating spaciousness for what it is we will do next. Sounds time consuming doesn’t it? It really isn’t. When you have control over your task switching you will find sitting comfortably for 5 deep, slow, nourishing breathes is all it takes to help you immerse yourself in what you are doing next, thus preventing your distractibility because you are more fully able to be present in what you are doing. Of course this assumes you have attended to all the time management hygiene items…no flashing screen pop-ups, or ringing phones, chatty co-workers, etc. Assuming you have sequestered yourself for an hour or two of focus time, 5 deep breathes is a very effective way to start (take more if you need to, see if you can breathe deeply for two full minutes…you won’t regret it).
However, most of us don’t work in a silent bubble of “focus time”. We can, it is always in our control to protect time for the important things we need to do with our fullest attention, but these tend to be “small islands” in the ocean of our workweek where much of our time is prescribed for us. Meetings, hallway chats, phone calls, e-mail, etc. (never mind actually working). In previous iterations of my career I used to love global travel because it guaranteed me 6 hours of uninterrupted time as I flew over the Atlantic (airplane mode offering a fabulous reprieve); my creativity and productivity flowed (until it all abruptly stopped upon landing via jetlag and Wi-Fi)! There is a cost to the near-constant switching of what we are asking ourselves to do in our day. Experts say that it takes us somewhere between 12 and 24 minutes to move off one task and into another - results vary. There are some very scary graphs out there that show you how much of you day is consumed by context switching (do the math, # of times you switch tasks in a day x 12 minutes…), making it apparent that time management is a competency that would serve each of us well. Touché! There are ways to better manage our time and everyone’s expectations within it, and this is a worthwhile endeavor… not just for our productivity (which is the point of view on offer with time management books and training) but also for our wellbeing.
Feeling overwhelmed at work? How many context switches have you experienced in the last hour (what did you work on or “touch” in the last 60 minutes)…and of those items how many were your doing (i.e. voluntary) and how many of them were outside of your control (i.e. others needing your time)? We set out each and every morning to be our very best…that is not just a way of being but also an expectation. When we are frustrated in our ability to live up to that standard we rarely look to see what may be contributing to our failure to “be our best”. We are often quick to judge ourselves as not being able to keep up or to manage, we forget things, don’t get the “full picture”…we fill in the gaps with assumptions we don’t have time to check and then experience the inevitable negative outcomes that come along with maladapted coping mechanisms. This is all perfectly human behavior (what I am saying is if this all sounds too familiar you are wonderfully normal). So is picking up the pace to keep up, rather than taking a moment to see what is actually contributing to feeling overwhelmed or pressured. There is another way. There are mindful techniques to better manage your time and your wellbeing that won’t cost you your job (or even more of your time). Ready?
These are but a few examples. The goal is not to get everything done (work is perpetual, it will literally never end). The goal is to get the right things done in the right way AND have enough energy left at the end of your day to go home and enjoy your personal life and your loved ones. No one leaves this life wishing they had worked more. “We only have moments to live.” is wisdom from Jon Kabat-Zinn. How do you want to experience the moments that are given to you?