4 Steps to Becoming a Multi-Tasking Master

Last Updated Jun 2, 2011 1:55 PM EDT

No doubt you've heard the research that "proves" multitasking is counterproductive, but I disagree. There is bad multitasking and there is good multitasking. The trick is to learn how to multitask the right way.

Traditional multitasking doesn't work because it involves two or more activities competing for the same resources. A typical multi-tasker may try to listen to voicemail while reading a report, talk to a friend while writing an email, read the morning newspaper while talking to their spouse, or play a board game with their kids while watching the evening news. The problem with all of these is that these tasks are competing for the same limited resources.

Fortunately, there is a smarter way to multitask. In psychology, chunking is a strategy for making more efficient use of memory. For example, trying to remember "IMAT TRA CTE DTOF UR RYSH EEP" would take forever and you'd forget it tomorrow. But you could instantly remember "I'm attracted to furry sheep." Why? Even though the order of letters hasn't changed, grouping them differently produces a much different result. Psych people call this chunking (the grouping part, not the attraction to sheep).

For our purposes, chunking is a strategy for making more efficient use of your time and schedule. Chunking allows you to get more done by grouping multiple tasks together. So, how does chunking avoid the pitfalls of traditional multitasking? The trick is to choose two tasks that don't compete for the same resources by combining a mental task with a physical task.

4 Steps to Becoming a Multi-tasking Master

  1. List dead time activities. Dead time is not time when you have nothing planned, but is time spent doing a brainless activity that feels like a waste of time. No matter who you are or how productive you think you might be, we all have some dead time throughout our day. Examples include brushing your teeth, getting dressed, standing in line, sweeping the floor, driving, sitting in waiting rooms, working out, cooking, doing the laundry, jogging, vacuuming, doing the dishes, etc.Think about an average day and list all of the areas of dead time you find. Look for pockets of dead time that are predictable and recurring. Write them down as you think of them.
  2. Brainstorm the positive activities you want to do more often. Step 1 had you list dead time activities, but improving your life is all about doing the things you're not currently doing but that you want to do. If time weren't an issue, what activities would you do? Maybe you'd read every John Grisham novel or more articles in your industry's journal. Maybe you'd hand-write letters to your top clients or to family or call each of your friends once a week. If you're having trouble coming up with a good list, think of those things you enjoy and/or that will get you closer to reaching your goals.
  3. Determine if the activities require your head or your body? Mark the activities in step 1 and step 2 as either "head" or "body." In other words, does the activity require you to think (head) or be physical (body)? Head examples include attending church, watching TV, memorizing new vocabulary, reading, listening to an audio program, etc. Body examples include lifting weights, washing a car, cooking, driving, doing laundry, jogging, showering, flying, commuting (i.e., subway, bus), working on the lawn, walking, doing dishes, etc.
  4. Make the connection. Look for opportunities to combine a head activity with a body activity. For example, you could listen to the Portuguese audio program while you stretch, memorize 10 new words by posting them in the shower and near the kitchen sink, walk while calling your friends, listen to The Grapes of Wrath while driving into work, etc.
Unless your father is your mother's cousin, most people have only one head and one body. For chunking to work, you must combine just one head activity with just one body activity. For example, at my church, you can take a hike on a trail with a preacher while he gives a bible study. A friend makes all of her calls while on a StairMaster. What about you? What can you chunk?

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    Robert Pagliarini is obsessed with inspiring others to create and empowering them to live life to the fullest by radically changing the way they invest their time and energy. He is the founder of Richer Life, a community of passionate people who want to learn and achieve more in life and at work. He is a Certified Financial Planner and the president of Pacifica Wealth Advisors, a boutique wealth management firm serving sudden wealth recipients and affluent individuals. He has appeared as a financial expert on 20/20, Good Morning America, Dr. Phil, Dr. Drew's Lifechangers and many others.