I’m checking my email, drinking a coffee, ordering shoes online, and writing this blog article.

You’ve already stopped reading because that sentence was too long.

It’s taking me 5 times as long to write this because of multitasking, and it will certainly have typos, sorry Mark and Laura. As the attention span of the worlds gets shorter and shorter, we’ve ended up multitasking more and more. 50 or so years ago people had more specific jobs to do, simpler schedules, and something that’s virtually unheard of these days: patience. In a lot of areas, I think quality has gone down. There are still cars on the road produced 50+ years ago. Think your Kia’s going to be around in 50 years?? I think multitasking has a lot to do with that decline in quality.

We’re not computers, but the term “multitasking” comes from the the ability of a computer to perform simultaneous tasks. Computers can have more than one logical processor and actually do this for real… But as humans, we’ve only got one brain. In computer terms, we’ve got a single processor and when we multitask it’s really just an illusion – we’re time-sharing our brain rapidly between different thoughts.

A search on Google shows tons of studies have been done that show how terrible human multitasking is for quality of work and stress level. With even simple tasks, more multitasking means more errors.

What I find even more damaging than simple multitasking is context switching. That’s like multitasking on a macro scale. For example, my job is half programmer and half salesman. Two completely different skill-sets. When I have to swap between roles, it is difficult and stressful. Without enough time to prepare myself, I’ll fumble around until I eventually right myself.

Whether it’s varied job roles or simply going home after work, we all have to do context switching. Here are three ways I’ve found to make it easier: Group, Break, Differentiate.

Group – I try to group my day so similar tasks are done at once. For example, I might plan sales meetings in the AM and switch to programming in the PM. This reduces the number of times I’ve got to switch my brain over. You’ll be surprised how simple planning can help you get the work done better and faster.

Break – Add a physical break between contexts. Take a walk, get a drink, close your eyes. Whatever. Doing something unrelated to both contexts is key. I like to take walks, and love to use driving time as a break. I blast the radio and just stop thinking. By the time I arrive, I’m fresh and ready to go.

Differentiate – If you have different types of meetings all day long, don’t do them all in the same conference room or office. If you’ve ever done this wrong, you know that all the meeting blur together and you can’t keep it straight.

Those three things have really helped me be more productive. Here’s a real life comprehensive application of the principles. I use Tasks in Outlook to remind me to send followup emails to people, but they were popping up throughout the day and interrupting my context. I changes all my tasks to all remind me at the same time of day (Group!). I picked 6:30 AM, and each morning fire off the emails from the couch. Then, I shower and get ready for the day (Break!). Finally I go into my home office, eimagine office or client site to begin the next part of my work day (Differentiate).

Take a look at next week, and try planning it out right. Let me know how it goes for you.

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