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The 4S Alternative to MultiTasking

It’s tough, being all the roles that we perform, in the same space, and sort of at the same time.

Even if we have a schedule mapped out (and omg, is there an avalanche of advice, or is there an avalanche of advice), it’s not easy. You can hear the pressure cooker whistle in the middle of a concall (yes, its a meme now), or the sound of the SO’s call, which seems to boom so much louder than our own!

Of course there are the kids, and the unending cleaning.

The sink, it is Draupadi’s unending vessel, giving unto us much more than we had put into it.

This, of course is when we are lucky.

Even so, we are overstretched.

Let me let you into a little secret. Yea, there’s research to back it up, but I’ll let the nerds amongst you look it up, and then the opposite…that’s your rabbit hole. I’ve done that.

The secret?

There’s No Such Thing as MultiTasking.

You heard it right.

It’s not multi tasking. It’s actually splicing, and sorting. And these are different skills.

If you try to multitask, you will, like me, let the milk boil over, while rushing to finish that email. And then what?  And then have extra cleaning to do. Have you ever washed a tea towel wet with clingy milk? ugh. Do not, I repeat, do not try to multi task.

The only way we are going to survive this is by being hyper organised. Yeah, like a robotic thingi with a program running it. You’ve heard plenty about – get the family to help. Give out tasks. Hold them responsible. Each one, do one job. You know all that stuff.

But even if you have handed out All the tasks, they are still up there in your head, your tracker going berserk trying to keep all the balls up in the air, in perfect rhythm. All the while wondering why you want to scream when everything is right there. And everyone wants the same thing – a bit of computer time, and a lot of super food, on the lounging sofa. Yes, we are all in there together. But you feel like you are the spider in the centre of a very sticky web, trying to control everything just right, navigating the safe pathways to sanity and sanitation. And food. And snacks. And picking up the laundry. And tracking soap quantities. Is there enough flour. I should have bought more pasta. Who could have ever thought I’d need that icecream machine. And why did I not get the old mixie repaired…. there we go again.

It’s not our fault. Our brain is in Magpie mode. We want to do it all, have it all, and lean every which way, all at the same time. No wonder we are spinning like a top.

So, I took a deep breath, looked at my notes on multitasking, collated over the years (I’ve wanted to write a book on everything, this is one of them!) and all the stories I’ve collected of people who managed to work it – and presto, here is a 4-S formula. Try it?

The Four things to do to ensure that we are not spinning senselessly (while looking perfectly calm and in control, of course. Ignore the high pitch please!), are right here: 

One: Sectioning

Why does normal work seem so much easier than WFH? Apart from the fact that the help is missing in privileged countries like India, there isn’t that much more to do. In countries where the minimum wage applies, plus insurance etc. few have help. Even so, the WFH is horribly exhausting  for all of us.

It works, because we have it sectioned off in different locations.

Now we will have to draw those boundary lines inside one’s head. And stick to them.

If mommy is writing, then mommy can receive a snack, not make a snack. If Daddy is on a call, then Daddy can make noise(for the call), but not be subject to it. The pressure cooker will have it’s hours too, let us not deny it some Freedom of Expression. As will the milk. But not in your work time. Don’t let them spill over into each other. Draw the line, as if you were in another geography.

Sure, give everything time. Remember school, when everything was sectioned off into a timetable. This time you get to do it your way, make your own timetable. Draw it up according to needs n goals, sure. Swap things over occasionally. But do not let it bleed – the boundaries of those timeboxes are not porous.

What if stuff spills over, you ask?

Then, one of two things are happening. Either you timetabled it badly, and need to revise it. Keep your goals in mind, not just other people’s needs when revising the time table. Or, the other thing might be happening is that you really do have too many types of things to do. An empty nester couple have much fewer types of things to do than a working dad with three kids, two dogs and a single partner. What do you do then, when it really is too many – not too many things, but too many types of things, each with too many things to track within it (Did we need eggs, or did we have enough, did the dog treats last the week, or do we need to book the dog trainer again, did we get the right socks for Daisy’s show, did the piano get tuned, or was it the guitar…and the car, cycle – oh it needs washing, I need a different soap. That’s too many lives – and they all need living. How? Splice.

Wait for it, we are getting there.

Two: Sorting

This sounds easy, right? That’s what Darwin’s wife would have thought too, when he was setting up his tables. Or who was it who wrote up the Periodic Tables for the first time and did not get a Nobel Prize for it? Oh wait, he did. (Dmitri Mendeleev, 1906, I looked it up for you, now pay attention here. This is going to unscramble your brain).

Sort.

Sort stuff physically as you walk past it, sure. Even if you realise you are turning into your mommy. Sort the things you have in your head, as they pop up, and slot them into mental boxes.

But wait, first you have to build the mental slots! Build your own Box system. (There are plenty in self help books, but it is best to find what works for you)

Here’s an example: Home, Office, Kids, Social, Rest, Family, Travel.

Here’s another way of doing it: Food, Drink, Sports, Work, etc.

It’s up to you.

What to do:

Each thought that comes in needs to be parked in one of these boxes till you have the time to deal with them, one box at a time.)

As thoughts, tasks come into your head, put the stuff that’s popping up in these boxes. As before, try to not let them creep out into other boxes (but don’t stress if they do, we will just pop them back later.

Next we come to what we do with the boxes.

Three: Sequencing

There’s only so much you can do with two hands, two ears and one head. So, the rest will just have to wait it’s turn.

Now, sadly, tasks do not live in a democracy, and certainly do not have equal rights. Some are less important than others, some are clearly not urgent. Some are great to do, but really, if they don’t get done, who cares (say I, as I stare at the unmade bed from the corner of my eyes, with my eyeballs focused on this screen, please love me for making your need to hear this more important than sorting out the bed. It’s only going to get unmade anyway, it’s time for my mid morning nap soon). Where were we? Yup. Sequencing all the things that needed to be done.

Classify them, in your head, or in a journal (do this in under a minute!) into Urgent, Important, Necessary and Eventually.

Remember our boxes? We are filling them up with things like – cooking lunch, answering the email, writing up that time sheet, client calls, writing that additional note…etc. Each box has a name, right? Home Cooking. Home Cleaning. Office Admin. Office Client. Office Money. Social Zooms. Sanity Reading.

How do we arrange these boxes, so that we know how to sequence them?

Pretend you are entering an empty room, With 4 walls.

The two walls that are nearest to the door are to be called Urgent, and Important.

Call the other two walls Necessary, and Eventually. (Let Eventually be the farthest bit)

Now all we have to do, is shift the boxes in the room, along these walls.

Arrange the boxes so that the urgent ones (like boiling over milk!) get placed towards the front, on one side. Important ones, in the front on another side. Urgent+Important gets done first. The other boxes can wait, even if overflowing.

So, in your diary, sequence the stuff that needs to be done. (Also, you don’t have to fully deal with every box before moving to the next one. Deal with whatever you can quickly, and move to the next. Keep it moving)

(Promise, it gets done. It does take a bit of time to get used to it, but as long as you keep moving, it gets better and better)

(Pro Tip: Your self indulgence, self care is also on the list. Now, where will you put that box? Important? I’d say so)

Four: Splicing – but really, this is not a fourth ‘rule’. It’s the underlying principle to the first 3, and helps us do them really well. It’s the secret sauce to making the first 3 work.

Remember I said, keep moving?

You don’t have to finish each box before moving on to the next box of stuff do do?

Meaning, you don’t have to say, do ALL the kitchen work for the day before moving on to ALL the office work for the day (Some people do prefer it that way, if you are one of them, cool). Then you’d want to do ALL the bank and tax work before you move on to ALL the client calls, and the bank site will crash, and your client will not be there when you have free time – and it’ll all feel horrible. The troublemaker here is the ALL.

We really cannot do it ALL at the same time.

So, here’s what I do. I splice fine. (ya ya, life is an onion. Again)

Busy Mommy type:

If I have a life with little kids, 3 dogs and adult children in the house (remember to add growing them up to the Eventually boxes :D) – then I will splice my time into 3 minute slots. And every task I do will be spliced into 3 minute tasks. See where we are going with this?

Doubts aa?

How can a client call be done in 3 minutes? Uffo, obviously not. But, is it possible to chop your work into: Drafting client email in points, writing said email in nice language, checking it for errors and omissions, and sending the email as a precursor to the call? How much time will each take? 1-3 minutes? Just enough time before you are needed again, right? Splicing gets it done, and then the client call also happens in less time (just watch your tone of voice, WFH voices tend to sound brusque and irritable sometimes).

Used to Office Type:

You know what you miss, right? The chai on the desk, the uninterrupted chunks of time. The colleagues right there for a quick consult. The smile in the corridor. And the solid feel of closing your notebook/file/pen when something is sorted.

WFH feels unending, with everything bleeding over into each other.

Splice in 12-15 minute chunks of time, and task. Bring that definite closure, and reward every 15 minutes. If your task is making that flask of tea for the day, then celebrate it being done nicely with a photo – go on, instagram it, if you can fit it into that 12 mins! If your task is writing that nasty email (which you know you must.not.send.when.you.are.angry, go on,draft it, and close it off with a nice cool drink. If your task is a tough meeting, then slot 2 or 3 sections to it, but keep your splicing segments the same. And save a few splices to office gossip ‘meetings’ with shared cups of tea or whatever.

Easily Distracted Magpies:

Remember you found the link to this on Twitter? Yup. Splicing is for you too. Splice to your attention span. In teaching, we are told to assume that the normal student attention span is under 7 minutes. Assume the same for yourself. Splice to 6 minutes. Define tasks that can be done in 6 minutes, and schedule them. Don’t believe me that stuff can get done in 6 minutes? Don’t, but watch yourself. As if you were going to go beyond 6 minutes without getting distracted anyway. Ha! (On a serious note, when you find your attention span in minutes, it’s a good thought to try to extend it half a minute at a time).

Key thing here is, watch yourself, set your own splice of time, design your tasks to that chunk of time. You’ll find yourself getting many more things done. It’s satisfying checking things off that list.

Try these, the 4S to getting things done. Work around your own likes, dislikes, priorities, circumstances. Design your WFH life in ways that work with these tools, and let me know how well it worked out for you.

Wishing you Love and Productivity,

Meeta

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