We can’t multitask, let me just set that straight right now. If you don’t believe me try this following exercise: grab a pen and a piece of paper and divide your page into two columns. In the first column you will write the letters a-z, then in the second column you will write the numbers 1–26. Grab something to time yourself, set it off and begin writing. Do all the letters first THEN all the numbers. Now note your time. You probably nailed this in no time at all. Now, do the same on the other side of your piece of paper only this time switch between writing one letter and one number; so instead of writing abcdefg… then 1234567… you would write a1b2c3d4e5f6g7… and so on, until you are left with 2 columns that match the first pair. Note your time on this as well. I don’t want to tell you what the outcome will be, because I want you to try it for yourself…
We don’t multitask, we multi-switch. Our attention is pulled in different directions and we are much higher performers when we focus on one task at a time. Ever been having a conversation with someone when there is a TV on in the background? It doesn’t matter if you care about what is on the screen or not, it is vying for your attention and even if you are able to give your conversation partner your full attention, part of your brain is still dealing with the bandwidth of keeping you from looking at that screen. You’re not truly present.
Now like any other skill, certain people will be better or worse at what we perceive as multitasking. Someone who can make these switches seamlessly is what we generally consider to be a multitasker, but I’m guessing that if your reading a blog on how to be more proactive then – just like me – you’re probably not the worlds greatest multitasker.
So, I’m three paragraphs in and I haven’t talked about proactivity yet. This is simply because everything I am about to say hangs on the fact that we cannot multitask, so I figured I would be doing you a disservice if I did not cover that first.
We have two choices on our actions: PROactive and REactive and just like with multitasking we cannot do the two at exactly the same time. Again we may be proficient at switching between the two, but if what we want is more proactivity then we need to keep these two states far away from one another.
So many of us start our day in reactive mode and pretty much stay there. The first thing we do in the morning is check the notifications on our phone. This pushes us into a place of reactivity. Whether we respond or not, this is a reaction to the stimulus. We may even get down for breakfast feeling like there has already been a ton of demands placed on us. If we see something that upsets us we spend time dwelling on it, this is time that is taken away from the proactive actions we deeply want to take.
It is not a case of when people say “you just don’t want it bad enough” it is simply that our minds are handling something else right now. And we are given so much more to handle nowadays than ever before. I look at my phone and see the ever increasing number of unopened emails and I think “I need to handle that” then I turn to my to-do list and think “I need to handle that too”. Next thing the phone rings or a delivery comes to the door and more and more I am reacting to things. Even on a good day where I am managing to get a lot done, this multi-switching slows me down, halts my momentum and derails my train of thought. I may get back on task, but it won’t be with the same level of focus or drive I had before I switched to reactive mode.
So what can we do about this? I find a few things to be extremely useful. Firstly we can reduce the number of things clawing for our reactions. At the time of writing this blog I closed all tabs in my browser than have notifications and switched my phone onto do not disturb mode.
Secondly create separate spaces for being proactive and being reactive. Set a time where you will work uninterrupted and a time where you will react to things. I have a pad of paper next to me and any thoughts that have popped into my head whilst writing I have jotted down on the pad so that I will remember them later, even this is a slight task switch, but less of a distraction than tackling the task completely or leaving it rattling around in my head as I try to work.
Next awareness is key. The trick is not to never be reactive again during your times of proactivity. It’s not a case of “if I react to something I have failed”. It’s more a case of noticing when you do and cultivating the habit of pulling your mind back on task. Much like mediation, the work itself is learning to use the power of awareness. Be accepting when it happens, but know that you can re-set your focus (and each time you do it becomes easier to do it).
Finally try to start your day in a proactive way. Even if you just give yourself 5 minutes to write some goals, do some stretching or think the thoughts that are in your head before the notifications start fighting for your attention. How we start the day can have a big impact on how the rest of the day goes. So starting in a proactive state primes you for proactivity for the rest of the day.