I have a problem that needs fixin' – can you help?


I hate, hate, hate the term ‘multitasking’. I can’t tell you why I hate it – it just doesn’t sit well with me. When someone tells me that they are multitasking – I get the impression that they aren’t really paying 100% attention to one particular task – – but, rather, some attention to several tasks. If that person happens to be performing a task for me – I feel like my task is maybe getting 60-80% of their attention, instead of 100%. If I’m a client who has paid this person to perform this task – then I get increasingly irked because if I paid for it, then I want 100% of your attention. Am I wrong here?

That being said – I multitask. Who doesn’t, really? Can we really get anything done in a day without some of our attentions spread out across several areas?

I do more than multitask, however – and here is where I think that perhaps some of you have some advice that could help me. Maybe some of you have the same issue and have found ways that help you deal with the problem – and you are neighborly enough to share your wisdom with me. It’s the change season, after all, isn’t it? Time for a change. Ready for a change. That kind of thing? Well, I’m all about recognizing some of my more troublesome character traits and habits and trying to change.

Here’s the deal – yes, I multitask. More than that – I get distracted very easily. Not in ways you would think. Social media outlets like Twitter, Plurk, Facebook and the like don’t distract me much at all. I love using those tools – and wish I had the time to use them more! But I do know where my priorities are – so if you see me Twittering – it’s because I have a moment in the day where I’m taking a coffee break or just taking 5 minutes between projects to take a breath. I’m the same with email. If I have shit to do and I have a deadline – I shut down my email program for an hour or two. I’m always good about turning it back on and checking in – but I find email to be incredibly distracting when I have shit to do. So, I schedule email breaks, coffee breaks, lunch breaks – – I try to be judicial with my time as much as possible.

But, I still get distracted – and it doesn’t take much! Here’s a perfect scenario….

I’m working on a client site project. I’m either designing or coding their site and it needs to get done …. yesterday. I’m trying hard to accommodate. I’m really rocking and rolling and making progress and the time comes that I need to upload several files to my test bed in order to continue working on their project. Great, right? I’m moving right along! In the time it takes to upload those files – – we’re talking MINUTES here, people..minutes – – I’m waiting for the files to upload and decide to flip over to my browser window and have a look at the notes from another clients project. I do this because my mind needs to be occupied with something other than watching water boil waiting for the files to upload. Plus – I say to myself – if I can take a minute to look over notes for the next project I need to work on – – I can have it in the back of my mind to start prioritizing tasks and time for that project.

Minutes, I say! That file upload took all of 2.5 minutes – – and in that span of time, I’m checking notes for the other project and happen to notice a question that client had, or a file that I need to go find and download…. or a development piece that I need to research in order to determine the best way to help this client meet their goals.

Instead of returning to my file upload, now that its finished, and proceeding along with my project – – I’m not off on the net researching, downloading, responding to the other client project and before I know it an HOUR has gone by, and I’m back to feeling stressed and pressured because I’ve now let an hour go by on my other project.

Perhaps I spread myself too thin and need to revisit the word “No” ? Or maybe I have a true ADD situation going over here. I mean, I can’t be the only one who finds 2.5 minutes of file uploads a complete bore, can I?? To the point of absolutely HAVING to fill my brain with something else in those 2.5 minutes because I cannot POSSIBLY be idle for that amount of time (god forbid!).

Its not that I don’t get anything done. Quite the contrary – I get an amazing amount of stuff done in a day, if I do say so myself. It just seems a little chaotic sometimes and I think I need an intervention! lol Plus, I’m pretty decent with organization — I would give myself an A- in that area…. although, at times, I do fall a bit behind due to distractions, such as I’ve mentioned.

I have Lindsey – my assistant, whom I absolutely adore! She helps keep me organized and on task, as much as she possibly can. I would bet that girl sits over there in her office and just shakes her head at me – wondering WHAT she could do to help…and I know I don’t pay her enough to put up with me, sometimes – – but she is wonderful and I’m almost…. almost hopeless – but not totally!

I do what I can to manage and organize my time, and yet some days I still feel chaotic. Not everyday — but the days that it does happen can be pretty stressful. So. . .

  1. Time management practices – what helps you?
  2. Time tracking tools – think it would help if I tracked my time and kept a ‘time diary’ to help me understand where my weaknesses are?
  3. Do you have issues with distraction? Have you found methods that help you out in that area?

This week – I think I’m being pretty hard on myself, actually. We were gone for 10 days and upon return, I became very ill with a bad case of bronchitis, our pet died, my father had major surgery and was hospitalized for a week — this week has been one of catch up, fall behind, catch up, fall behind, catch up! So, maybe I’m being more hard on myself this week than I should be – – though, I do recognize a pattern of behavior with the distraction thing – – its not new to me, and I’m lookin to fix it, using whatever tools available – physical, mental or metaphysical 🙂

Have a suggestion?? I’m all ears!

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26 thoughts on “I have a problem that needs fixin' – can you help?”

  1. Awwwww, don’t be too hard on yourself! You’ve had a hard couple of weeks!

    I’m actually 100% like you in this regard. I’m so impatient. My recommendation for that 2.5 minute upload? Get up and go to the bathroom or get a drink or something. You’re doing something productive (because you need to do those things too), but you’re not getting started on something new, so you won’t be so tempted to stay distracted.

  2. Yeah it does sound like you’re being more than a bit harsh on yourself.

    Time tracking is something i always struggle with as well. I tried logging my time and keeping a kind of “time diary” but while I started off being really diligent about it, after about 10 days it tailed off then stopped.

    Now what I do is set my self a series of attainable goals. By 11am I will have complete the comp for the new about us page. By 2pm I will have tested and set live the new CSS changes… that kind of thing. I find that it helps keep me focused, and by having deadlines makes me more determined to hit them – even if they are self imposed.

    In terms of distraction, if I find that my mind is wandering to other things, then I find a good old fashioned stroll works. I load up a podcast and go hit the streets for 10-15 mins. Get some fresh, maybe a treat and then get back to it.

  3. There aren’t any magic answers, and pardon me for saying that one of my heroes is human…
    A. I think you might be beating yourself up more than usual.
    B. But, yes you might have a little problem with distractions.

    Recognizing that you do it is the first step. Have you considered putting the tasks “on timer?” I have my tasks scheduled per hour. During the hour that I’m working on one project, even if waiting for a download, I simply cannot pick up another project. It’s just a rule.

    While you are waiting for that interminable 2.5 minutes to pass, why don’t you use that as a time to do a deep breathing or stretching exercise? If you are having to exercise, perhaps you won’t be tempted not to go back to the original task. And, if you are sitting at the computer all day, the stretches will do you some good. Just a thought.

  4. Are you like me, Lisa? Do you stand in front of the microwave and yell at it to “Hurry up for crissakes!”?

    Email is a HUGE time waster for me, and since I have my mail client set to “ding” when new mail comes in, I pretty much stop what I’m doing to check it, in true Pavlovian fashion. I belong to a great web design list, and one person’s way of handling that problem made sense to me .. I see you are already doing that. And that is, just shut the darn thing off while you’re working. If it’s really urgent, and they have my cell phone number, they’ll call me. So I managed to reclaim a lot of wasted time using that method.

    I do rely heavily on Outlook, once I figured out how to make it work for me instead of the other way around. All contacts go in my Outlook Contacts and I use those contacts to prepare client documents using Word’s merge documents feature. That’s pretty handy.

    I also figured out how to sync my Palm Treo with Outlook and keep all my appointments synced between phone and email and have my phone remind me when I’ve got an appointment coming up.

    For clients, I use PHPCollab collaborative software. There are others out there that are newer and fresher (ActiveCollab being one), but I’ve used PHPCollab for so long and my clients seem to like its interface, that if it’s not broken, I’m not inclined to fix it. It’s got a feature that lets you input your estimated time for completion of tasks and subtasks, and then your actual time. So you can (1) see where you’ve come out ahead of sked or fallen behind. And you can use that data in your client invoice. So … as I said, as long as this works for me, I won’t change anytime soon.

    I’ve done a lot better managing my time since we bought this house and the entire attic is a converted space that I’ve turned into an office, complete with a half bath. I have a dorm fridge up there and a Flavia coffee machine, and I can shut the door. So having a functional and pleasant workspace, for me, goes a LONG way toward keeping me at the desk and working. Especially since coffee and other beverages are within arm’s reach.

    Like you, I think that if your mind is wandering, it’s trying to tell you something. Often, if I get up from a problem or tedious task, go do something else for just a few minutes, I come back with a fresh perspective.

  5. First of all, don’t be so negative :). You’re not alone in struggling with this. I have a couple of ideas, though I wouldn’t call them suggestions. They may work for you, or they may not. They work for me.

    I use lists to keep myself focused. I’m on Omnifocus guy, which there is a whole lot of reading out there about already. Basically keeping lists of to-dos for projects along with what I need to get them done. This helps, especially, any time I feel overwhelmed by a project. As soon as I give myself baby steps to completion (literally, anything that can’t be done one its own is a project, isolate down to the finest details that are reasonable). I find that having small, manageable tasks is the easiest/fastest way to get myself working again.

    Enough of that. Staying on track to begin with. Turn off notifications, etc. I have Mail notifications off, same with Adium, Skype, Twitter, etc. Everything waits on me to speak to it. Also, if you find you are distracted by lots of windows (sometimes I feel a bit overwhelmed by how much is going on) take a breath and clear house. Close _everything_. Maybe do a restart. Then reopen only the apps you need to finish what you started. Helps to clear the mind and get focused.

    Oh, and lately I’ve been working without music playing. I find it’s been helping, though I never would have expected it. Maybe give that a shot?

  6. @Lindsey – those are some good suggestions.. simple and good. 🙂

    You’ve probably noticed new entries in my Google calendar where I’ve scheduled my meals. Weird? Maybe. One of my other worst habits is the tendancy to put my own well being at the very bottom of my list of things to do in a day – – which included eating decently and taking care of myself, physically. Over the past week, I’ve started to change that a bit and have started a good diet plan (I’ve lost 8 lbs already!) – – and in order to remind myself to stick to that plan… I had to calendar my meals LOL

    Sounds weird – – but having them in Google Calendar really helps because it syncs with my Outlook AND with the calendar on my mobile phone. So, when its time for me to take 10 minutes and feed myself – – I get an Outlook popup reminder on my computer AND a text message on my phone.

    Yes, I’m THAT bad 😮

  7. @AnswerJam – I am probably being a bit too hard on myself, you’re right. I tend to do that, as well – but I’m not so worried about that character trait lol Setting timers on my tasks is something I have not tried to do – I may just see if that works for me. I always sit down with my list of things that need to get done in a day and start at the top and work my way down – – finding all sorts of distractions along the way. Thanks for the suggestion!

    Taking a stroll is not a bad idea either – lord knows I could use the fresh air once in awhile 😉

  8. @Shelley (ThisEclecticLife) – so what you’re saying is that I’m only human? :d

    Your suggestion is similar to AnswerJams – – putting those tasks on a timer. Its beginning to sound like a pretty decent idea, at least to try it and see if it helps!

    If I did some exercise during those 2.5 minutes – I think I would be pretty motivated to get back to my task haha! Again – a very decent idea, thanks!

  9. @Joni – Hi 🙂 Sounds like we’re very similar in this regard.

    I do agree that having a nice dedicated space is really helpful. I, too, have a nice spacious office that is ‘away from it all’ – – I’m kind of tucked away in a corner of the house that is pretty separate from household chores that need doing (ie kitchen, laundry, etc). Otherwise I would be tempted to vacuum, or something! haha

    Turning off the email helps tremendously! I’m like you – I respond to that Outlook *ding* by rote. It’s automatic and I probably couldn’t stop myself if I wanted to.. so it had to be turned off before I went batty.

    I have looked into PHPCollab and it looks great. I also looked into BaseCamp and that was nice, too. We have a nice project management tool that we use that is extremely effective (a uber hacked version of the Isolsoft Support Center software). It’s not the project management or organization that is my problem…my distractability is the issue here.

    Having my calendaring synced to my mobile PC has been invaluable. I keep all my appointments – personal and professional – in my Google calendar, and Lindsey has access to the calendar where she adds client appointments, phone conferences, interviews, etc – which also sync. I just recently started doing this in the past few months and have found that I cannot live without it.

    My husband calls me an “Instant girl in an instant world” haha

  10. @Ryan – fantastic tips and ideas, thank you! I just Googled Omnifocus and plan on reading a bit about it to see if its something that I might find useful.

    I like your statement: “Everything waits on me to speak to it”

    That is a fabulous perspective, especially in this social media world, and it is how I feel about all that… stuff (twitter, skype, IM, et al)

    Funny you mention a restart. I’ve been known to do a restart just to clear my mind, and clear the slate.

    Good stuff, Ryan – thanks!

  11. err..except Omnifocus looks to be a Mac app. :-j

    I have a Mac, but its not my primary machine. Tho, I’m sure there is a similar Win app out there. 🙂

  12. Lisa,

    I’m exactly like you, I multitask and don’t do it on purpose. When I’m working on a CSS and switching browsers to see if it works cross-browser, I come across another open tab in Firefox, which easily catches my interest. My email tells me I have a new email, so I work on that.. an hour later I think: “What was I working on again?”.

    It frustrates the hell out of me, because at the end of the day I have nothing finished, but got a lot of other stuff partially done..

    Ryan: excellent idea, shutting off notifications. Thanks.

  13. Multitasking isn’t an option for me, it’s a necessity. I am late to this party, because so many others have offered great suggestions, but you did ask so…

    I rely heavily on MS Outlook’s mail rules to filter my mail by tasks and projects, and to ding differently (or not at all) as needed. So there are some Pavlovian reactions to the mail that is genuinely needed, but for those things that fall into ‘other’ there’s no sound. At the office I have a one-button DoNotDisturb which silently sends my calls to voicemail (altho I still grab the cell phone whenever it rings — guess I need help there).

    I sync my mail with my Blackjack phone, so that means I can catch up when I am otherwise idle (traffic jams, for example).

    I’ve never employed the Journal option in Outlook — mostly because it doesn’t sync with my phone or it’s predecessor: PocketPC — but it may serve you well in the time management area. For me, a notepad to jot what I did/when I did it is my tool of choice.

    I also have found something that completely prevents digital interaction: 2-3 nights a week I train in taekwondo. No phones, no PCs, but about 20 mins of cardio, 10 mins of stretching, 10 mins of disciplined ‘forms’, and about 20 mins of beating upon (or being beaten upon by) an opponent. The drill-seargent mentality of the instructor has helped me focus on the study, and that has also lent itself to greater discipline in the workplace.

    And at the risk of repeating everyone else: get off your own back. Being your own, toughest critic has undoubtedly led you to become the success that you are today. Once in a while, however, you need to hear from other critics, which I suppose this post serves you. Once you get this rough period behind you, I am certain things will look much brighter.

  14. I find that it helps if I don’t let myself think about anything else when I’m doing one task. I keep something by the computer that I can do a little bit of at a time (right now, it’s testing a huge pile of pens to see if they work) and do that instead. This is a designated filling activity so I know I’ll only do it for the time it takes to complete the original task.

  15. Your description of multitasking (originally a computer science term) is correct. By definition, someone “multitasking” is giving you less that 100% of their attention.

    You shouldn’t be offended however because as you described, the reason they can give you less than 100% is because you don’t consume 100% of what they have to give. It is out of efficiency that they then dispatch with other tasks while they are waiting for you to “interrupt” them again.

    (as you described yourself doing, waiting for the download)

    Of course people should not behave like computers, and there is plenty of research that shows how multitasking is productivity-reducing, at least in work on complex tasks which require concentration.

    So do yourself a favor, do one thing at a time and spend your “wait states” breathing, stretching and contemplating your current task.

  16. I suggest you simply shift. When you shift you have it going at 90%-10% where the 10% is sort of a check up “routine” to switch shift whenever you need it. So if you have a download and that is your priority then it should be at 100% right? But say you need a distraction then you check something else but you divert 90% and keep 10% paying attention to the download. Split screens help a lot. I don’t suggest you have more then two tasks to focus on and try to instead of multi tasking make use of queue prioritization.

  17. Congrats on the weight loss Lisa – that’s awesome!!! I did notice the new meals on the calendar – I initially giggled, then I realized that that totally made sense, LOL! I can’t wait to be done with school this year. I won’t have a strange class schedule anymore and I most likely won’t be working at Starbucks anymore (which is such a crazy schedule, I don’t even like to think about it). I look forward to getting my body on a regular sleep and eating schedule!

    AJ and I actually started Weight Watchers together in August. 16 pounds for me so far!

  18. Lisa,

    I went to a time management seminar a loooong time ago because i had just moved from being mostly responsible for myself to having 70 people that reported to me. One thing that stuck with me was the time log but not in the traditional sense of doing it all the time to track your work. I do it when I really feel like I’m losing it and need to refocus. I keep it on a piece of paper that has 3 columns:

    Time – Activity – Quadrant.

    To figure out what quadrant the time falls into draw a square and divide it into 4 smaller squares. Write ” + Urgent – ” across the top and ” + Important – ” along the left side. Mark the upper left corner 1, upper right = 2, lower left = 3 and lower right =4. Urgent tasks will fall on the left and non-urgent ones on the right. Important tasks on top and non-important ones on the bottom. Therefor something that is both important and urgent is a quadrant 1 activity, while something that is neither important or urgent is quadrant 4. Twitter is a quadrant 4 activity. Quadrant 3 at first looks a bit moronic. How could something be urgent but not important? How about the client the calls and says they have a meeting with their boss in 30 minutes to go over project milestones, could you send them a quick update on where you’re at? Well it’s a customer who’s depending on you and needs somethng but it sure isn’t important to helping you finish your tasks.

    This seems like a bit of a time waster in and of itself at first but after 3-4 hours you find yourself thinking about everthing you’re doing and it’s relevance to your goals for the day. Stop doing it when you feel back in control again.

    Now what was i doing before i opened up my blog reader? 😕

  19. Roxy – I got your note from earlier this afternoon and have your ticket on my list to update – – just needed to get a print job completed, printed and shipped before close of business today 🙂 With that done…heading over to your project ticket now 🙂

  20. I used to have pretty much the same problem with time management but, i decided that if i knew i was going to be waiting on a project short term that i would take that time and do something for myself – get a snack, drink, go outside and breath fresh air… anything but work especially on a different project.Seems to work for me, you might try it; you’re not getting distracted with another project and you’re doing something for you!:)>-

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