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Resources | Podcasts | All About You

All About You: Multitasking and mindfulness

September 20, 2013

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Motivating employees to work safely is part of the safety professional’s job. But who motivates the motivator? In this monthly column, veteran safety pro and professional speaker Richard Hawk offers his entertaining brand of wisdom to inspire safety pros to perform at their best.

You are a Marvelous Multitasker. Now, before you thank me for the compliment, let me explain what I mean. While you’re reading these words, you also are breathing, contracting muscles, transferring chemicals between millions of cells and doing a host of other activities – most of which you have no conscious control over. That’s impressive!

On the cognitive level, however, you’re not so good at multitasking. Nobody is. In fact, research shows that you can’t do it at all; your mind actually is switching between tasks. It’s not paying attention to multiple tasks at once.

Consciously multitasking also comes with a set of harmful effects. Research results reported in the Harvard Business Review, the Journal of Abnormal Psychology and the Psychological Bulletin show that “poor attention control” has been tied to depression, social anxiety, decreased IQ and a significant drop in productivity. Multitasking also can be downright dangerous (e.g., texting while driving).

For the past few years, I’ve been observing safety and health professionals around the country – particularly during my time at safety and health conventions – with the specific purpose of noticing how much we multitask. I’ve found that, like thousands of other professions, it has become a pandemic trait among us.

So, let’s move on to some ways you can avoid the emotional harm and decrease in productivity multitasking causes without throwing away your smartphone or removing your email software.

Spend time being mindful

Loosely, the opposite of multitasking is being mindful to, or focusing on, what you are doing without switching often between tasks. When you’re mindful, you get more done and feel more relaxed than if you multitask.

Here’s a simple way to practice mindfulness and improve your ability to focus: Pick a common activity you do every day and start paying closer attention to it. Eating is my favorite example. Rather than checking your messages or texting while you eat, just eat. When the plate arrives, take a moment or two to notice the presentation. See how the colors contrast or match. Pay attention to how the food tastes and its texture. To do this, you’ll probably have to eat a bit slower than you normally do. But that has its benefits too. You’re less likely to eat too much.

I regularly ask bartenders and waiters at hotels how often business patrons mess with their phone while eating. All of them say “most of the time” or something similar. One waiter told me she figures less than 10 percent of her business customers eat without a phone next to their plate.

You’re practicing when you pay attention to a daily routine. It’s like learning a musical instrument: Even if you only practice for a few moments each day, eventually you’ll be able to play songs. It’s the same for mindfulness – a bit of practice each day and you’ll find that you’ll get better at it, even when you’re not eating.

Set aside focused time for projects

This tactic helps you get more work done while giving your mind a break from the stress caused by multitasking. It has helped me tremendously.

Every day, I list what I plan to do that day on a desktop note. Next to at least one project, I put how much time I’ll focus on it – usually an hour or two. Then, when possible, I set a timer for the amount of time listed and don’t do anything else but the project at hand until the alarm sounds. I don’t check my phone, email, Internet or switch to any other activity.

Even if you do this only once a day (or once every couple of days), you’re again honing your focusing skills. Practice creates proficiency. And I’m sure that with enough practice not only will you be a Marvelous Multitasker, but eventually you’ll also be a Fabulous Focuser!

Richard Hawk helps companies around the world create more vibrant safety cultures by showing them how to make safety fun. As a professional speaker, author and musician, he also inspires employees to focus better and enlightens safety leaders about ways to increase their influence. To learn more about Richard, visit www.makesafetyfun.com.

Recent Articles by Richard Hawk

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