In this blog post series, we will look into the aspects of work that go beyond time management.
You sit down for what you hope will be an uninterrupted work session only to find yourself falling down a rabbit hole of thoughts. Did the other person think I acted awkward in our chit-chat? What’s for dinner? What’s on Netflix?
Whatever the exact thoughts might be, our minds regularly and effortlessly drift someplace other than that of the current moment. This is due to the default mode network (DMN) region of the brain, which makes you either daydream about the future or chew on your past. The term “default mode” was first used two decades ago to illustrate brain function at rest. While this is the network that is active when we are resting, it also lights up in as little as two seconds after being interrupted when focused on a task. It is thanks to the brain’s DMN capability that we are never trapped in the present moment. We are able to do something called mental exploration to the extent that no other species is able to. DMN also provides both context and understanding, giving coherence to our cognitive life and is essential to creative thinking. However, DMN does present a struggle for a mind focused on composing an email, completing a statistical analysis, or solving a maths problem. Even though the lack of focus is often blamed on poor time management — and at times, that is true — you can cut yourself some slack by acknowledging that your brain is simply not built to be incessantly right here, right now.
The office atmosphere, while full of distractions, was still the place we go to to get some work done. So, in today’s home working/hybrid world, how are we supposed to focus, when in the cosiness of our home we have so many different distractions to contend with?
Establish your own practices
Can you recall your typical office day? You snooze your alarm, eventually wake up, take a shower, grab breakfast and perhaps make a coffee and then get going. In the time when many aspects of this routine are interrupted, intentionally implementing structure in one’s day can help us focus. Research shows that establishing small practices such as preparing a cup of warm coffee before your first morning meeting or taking a few minutes to stretch whenever you are about to start the most mentally involved task of your day, can help you focus better. The lack of structure in our work-from-home days means that the days tend to blend in. Hence, crossing an item (or five!) off a to-do list may also feel far more satisfying…
Consider having a (simple) to-do list
Now, the tricky thing around to-do lists is that people often treat them as an I-wish list. Adding many large tasks to your to-do list could result in nothing but an anxiety-provoking and utterly overwhelming piece of paper. But the beauty and great potential of to-do lists is the psychology behind them: to free your mind from a work task, you do not need to complete it. Rather, you need to create a thorough plan of how you are going to complete it. To be useful, your to-do list should contain items that are well-specified, have short time frames, and fit into the larger picture of that plan. In other words: your to-do list should not be your mental graveyard, but kind of a detailed step-by-step plan for completing one specific task.
Chunking is the new multitasking
Except that they are not even remotely similar. But chunking is the new multitasking because the former actually does what the latter merely promises: it gets the work done. Research shows that multitasking hinders our performance because rather than doing multiple tasks at the same time, our brain is quickly switching back and forth between the tasks. Chunking — or breaking up your day into larger chunks reserved for different tasks — means you have fewer start-up moments and needless distractions when you are working on any given task. One approach is chunking all those needless distractions together. Does your day consist of numerous minute-long tasks? Handle them in a chunk. Do you receive dozens of emails throughout the day? Reserve one chunk at the end of your day to read all those emails and respond if needed.