It’s not the clutter of the desktop or inbox … but the clutter of the mind that scuttles our personal productivity plans and leads us into unproductive habits and wasted time.
Yes, I know, our inbox is spawning new life forms, ending the paper flood has been about as successful as ending world hunger and our mobility means that we have to juggle all of this like we’re riding a unicycle. Sometimes we’re infected with the attention span of a mosquito. We’re moving fast … but we aren’t getting anywhere. A lot of it starts with The Great Multitasking Hoax: It’s killing us.
Most of our conversations about personal productivity seem to revolve around related fields like organization or time management … but it’s probably more about mind management.
The consequence of a cluttered mind is our inability to focus on one thing at at time, fueled by our obsession with multi-tasking. In many ways, technology has driven us to overestimate our multi-tasking abilities … and science has repeatedly confirmed that we are misguided about this.
Consider the debate in Is Technology making us Smarter or Stupider, or the results of one man’s decision to stop multi-tasking for a week. Late last year, the New York Times summarized the most recent data on failed multitasking. Don’t overlook the Atlantic’s detailed analysis, either, in Is Google Making us Stupid, which looks more closely at what the Internet is doing to our brains as we become increasingly focused on short mind-bites of information.
One thing really works for me … and the more I talk to others, the more this seems to work for them, too. It’s stupidly simple and it doesn’t seem like it should work at all. In fact, I’m not exactly sure why it works … but it seems like it’s connected to our ability to focus. What is it?
Go somewhere else. Coffee shops are great places to work for me. Does that make sense with all of the commotion, the traffic in and out, people on cell phones or conversing with long lost friends that they hail from across the room? Not really … but when I’m there, I know it’s to concentrate on something(s) specific, writing or project development most of the time for me, but for others, reading reports, clearing up the email backlog, something specific.
This might be a mystery wrapped in an enigma tucked inside a conundrum, since you can get Internet access almost as certainly as you can get it in your office, so email traffic and web sites can easily viewed. For some reason, though, they’re less intrusive when you’re not in the office. This same phenomenon also seems to work for people who just grab a spare meeting room, or borrow an empty office down the hall.
There are probably many reasons for this phenomenon but it’s real. Part of it, I think, is because the change of scenery disconnects the usual wiring. Our brain recognizes that we’re moving to another place, and since it’s coming with us, it recalibrates and refocuses where we point it. It strikes me that in this totally different environment, the old circuits take a break and a new channel opens up waiting for us to direct it. The customary input channels that flood our office are temporarily offline and it makes a huge difference.
Try it when you’re feeling like your mosquito brain is on a caffeine overload. Change places and only bring along a simple list of what you need to get done … and do it. I think you’ll be amazed at how much you’ll get done.