Has this ever happened to you?
Two hours ago I opened my laptop to begin this article. As I was typing some notes, I noticed incoming email about an upcoming conference. Oh good! I opened it just to make sure everything was all set and to look over the last minute details. A link in the email took me to the site where I noticed the sessions calendar. I mentally noted which sessions I would prefer to attend in each hour. Before I got to the end, I decided to email a friend to confirm our meeting. Ba-ling! My cell phone notified me I had a message. I was now interrupting an interruption of an interruption, and my article was not progressing!
This was an old habit warring with a new. On a road trip last month I listened to The Myth of Multitasking, a book by David Crenshaw. Less than two hours long (140 pages in print), it tells the story of Helen, the CEO of a small business, and Phil, her business coach. She lurches through her day from one crisis to another, playing Whac-a-Mole with constant interruptions and feeling as though she will never get through the pile of papers on her desk. In desperation, she hires Phil to help her create order. The story follows Phil and Helen as he guides her through what she needs to hear. The author strikes at our affection for multitasking and explains we are “switchtasking,” switching from task to task, with a loss of time at each switch. Most of us believe multitasking is the way to accomplish more tasks, but this book makes a convincing case otherwise. Mr. Crenshaw shows us how to establish systems so we have longer times for focusing on our tasks. We learn we can be more efficient in three ways by: setting recurring meetings, giving clear expectations for availability, and using a calendar.
First, setting recurring meetings can improve efficiency. In my example above, of how not to write an article, notice I did not have interruptions from children. That may have been a fluke with the odds in my favor this morning, but I attribute it to our Morning Time. Originally started for devotions with my children, I tweaked it to include schedule and chores. Where I was once haphazard about this, now I feel confident that time spent here will pay back in focused time in my office later. We also reserve a long hour at dinner for wide-ranging conversation, and I ask my children to save their stories to share at the table. (As much as I love what they are discovering about the world, honestly, too much of this good thing makes shreds of my concentration!)
Other relationships would also benefit from planned recurring meetings. A strong marriage needs regular massaging, so we have a Date Night. This summer we are having occasional breakfasts at the local diner. (See my article for new directors: “How Am I Going to Handle All My Preparations and My Life, Too?”) Think of friends—do you have time to cultivate a couple of strong friendships? Put time for iron-sharpening-iron in the calendar. Set up recurring meetings with those who need you and those who feed your soul.
Second, we can give clear expectations of our availability. Passive interruptions, ones we do not initiate, can be minimized by letting others know when you will get to them. My chiropractor has a clock with a moveable hand which he posts on his door when he is away for lunch, and this lets the visitor know when he will return. Right now I use a sticky note on my door, but I could just as easily write it on a dry erase board. While this will not work for families with young children, teens can learn to hold their questions until our next availability. If we operate a business at home, we can set the answering machine to announce when we check for messages and plan to return calls. Also, anything that handles incoming messages (e.g., Skype, email programs, cell phones) should be set to “away” or silent notifications during times needed for mental tasks. Plan a regular time to check them, but keep them off during the times when focus is necessary.
Finally, we accomplish more by using a calendar. I have known this for a long time, but while my household was overrun by small children I wrote my day out as a list rather than a schedule. It was a fabulous day if I was able to draw a line through every item on my list. However, now my youngest is thirteen and I am enjoying the freedom of living within a time budget. Believe me, not one day has turned out exactly as I planned, but by planning on Sunday for the week to come I am able to fit in the important things and quite a bit of the wish list, too. A calendar is to time as cash envelopes are to income. Crenshaw tells us to avoid time debt by planning margin in our calendar. Now I block out thirty minutes for a twenty-minute drive, for breathing space. Rather than trying to cram sixty-five-minutes-worth of tasks into each hour, we need to reckon that hour as fifty-five minutes with five minutes for shifting gears. Besides planning travel time into the calendar, we should also block out “processing time,” those blocks where we stop and think about what needs to be done. Sunday evening works for me, but I also make sure I know what tomorrow looks like before I go to bed each night.
Our fabulous brains do not truly handle two tasks simultaneously. We move between tasks, shifting our focus. However, what is happening when I start the laundry and then clean out the guest room? Or put chicken on to simmer while I prepare a salad? Starting a task that runs without the need for mental activity is called “background tasking.” I derive an inordinate amount of satisfaction from having several machines working for me at once! This is not multitasking. Can driving be a background task while we talk on the phone or look for something to listen to? Not in my opinion, since focus is needed for both. In the flivver and flapper era of the 1920s, distracted driving was behind this quip: “Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.”
Home executives need to put systems in place to handle their tasks more efficiently by setting recurring meetings, giving clear expectations, and using a calendar. Parents are the heart of the home, nourishing and sustaining a healthy family. Just as a steady heartbeat indicates health, a regular schedule, with the fresh air of grace, keeps a family strong. We love our children and spouse best when we take time to be present and fully focused. Keeping a schedule for our responsibilities is one of the ways we love our families.