“Focus. Focus. Focus.” It’s a mantra I repeat to myself when I want to kick my brain into high gear.
The only hitch is that it doesn’t always work. In fact, some situations just aren’t meant for long stretches of intense, unbroken focus. You know all about the futility of multitasking, but there are actually times when your “monotasking” efforts go too far—or at least go on for too long, and lead to diminishing returns.
That being so, here are three common situations when intentionally switching tasks (sooner than you might think) is the most efficient thing you can do to stay productive.
1. Knocking Out Small, Boring Tasks
Most of us tend to procrastinate on our most mundane, mindless work, leaving certain tasks lingering on our to-do lists for weeks, months, or even years. Soon enough, they grow mold like long-forgotten leftovers jammed into the back of the refrigerator.
One little trick I’ve found to help overcome small-task fatigue—not to mention boring-task avoidance—is to stop trying to polish them all off in one sitting. Instead, I try to deliberately switch gears between different types of activities, even if they’re all minor, tedious to-do list items. Letting your mind wander at will within a certain type of task can reduce your resistance to them.
For example, when I sit down in the morning to plan my workday, I go through the same checklist every time. This can be a pretty dry process. However, I give myself freedom to accomplish the checklist in any order I like. I might start by answering some business emails, then look over calendar tasks, then flip back to answering more business emails, then hop over to rattle off a few quick replies to my most pressing personal emails, then finally finish clearing out my business inbox, and then go through my tickler files. By giving myself the flexibility to switch back and forth between tasks, I keep myself from getting bogged down on any one activity.
Another effective way to task-switch is to toggle between boring and (relatively) exciting tasks. For example, I know I need to get certain administrative tasks done each day, but it can be really hard to motivate myself if there’s no clear deadline. I somehow always find something “more important” to do.
So I made it a rule that before I can do anything from my book-marketing task list—an activity I actually find exciting—I needed to do one small item from my administrative to-do list.
By sticking with this intentional task-switching, I find that I manage to get paperwork filled out that I’ve been putting off and still manage to make some real headway on my book marketing efforts; I don’t have to choose between them. The promise of soon being able to do something fun helps me quit procrastinating on what’s not fun.
2. Rotating Your Most Deep-Focus Tasks
For most modern workers, getting in even an hour or two of concentrated work time is a feat. But if you’re among the lucky few who can clear even longer stretches to focus on tasks requiring thoughtful attention, you should still plan on setting a timer.
According to author Cal Newport, “If you study [the] absolute world-class, best virtuoso violin players, none of them put in more than about four or so hours of practice in a day, because that’s the cognitive limit.” As he explained in an Accidental Creative podcast in 2013, “this limit actually shows up in a lot of different fields where people do intense training.”
Instead, Newport continued, “they often break this into two sessions, of two hours and then two hours . . . I think if you’re able to do three, maybe four hours of this sort of deep work in a typical day, you’re hitting basically the mental speed limit.”
So when it comes to the most difficult tasks of your workweek, you might want to plan ahead for task switching. Maybe you’ll start your day with with background reading or research, then work on problem-solving or writing, take a break for lunch, do more reading, complete another deep work session, and then end the day with something much lighter, like email. This way you’ll have devoted most of your day to deeply focused work without getting drained by a single, high-concentration task.
Building in variety doesn’t mean constantly breaking concentration to do something mindless. By switching gears periodically, you can stay in a focused headspace without getting mentally fatigued, then struggling to refocus after your powers of concentration inevitably fail you.
Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to stop trying to solve it. When you feel stumped, Fast Company columnist Art Markman recently pointed out, it’s usually because your brain is having difficulty retrieving new bits of information from your memory. That’s when procrastination (of a sort) can help.
Switching tasks can break your brain out of a focused mode that isn’t getting you anywhere and lead you into a more diffuse mental state—where useful ideas are more likely to shake loose.
That could mean working on a different sort of task for the rest of the day, or even not working at all for awhile; sometimes just going for a walk or chatting with a colleague is exactly what your brain needs. Maybe you need to start work on a new project you haven’t begun digging into at all just yet. (Or maybe you just need a vacation.) Whether it’s stepping away for a few hours, days, or even weeks before coming back with fresh eyes, breaks like these can help you problem-solve better than forced focus might.
Just remember: You aren’t procrastinating. You’re just giving your brain the variety it needs to stay alert—and productive—for longer.