Most of us consider ourselves excellent multitaskers. And then we occasionally find ourselves Xeroxing a sandwich while eating the report we meant to copy.
Rarely are we as good as we think at juggling work, home, friends, volunteer work, our Star Wars fan fiction blog, the oil painting class we signed up for and our daily 5 a.m. CrossFit class.
But what if we were more honest with ourselves? What if we admitted that doing everything on the fly – effectively jumping into a pool without ever checking how deep it is – is not the best approach?
I recently came across an idea that gets to the heart of this, one formulated and tested over many years by Stew Friedman, a management professor and director of the Work/Life Integration Project at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
His approach is simple at its heart: Take a breath, reflect on how you spend your time, then look at how that time aligns with the importance of the things you're doing. It's an idea that makes you say, "Well that's obvious. Why didn't I think of that?"
But that's the problem. We're often so busy that we don't think about anything. We just charge ahead and trust that our super-human abilities – the ones we don't actually have – will help us muddle through.
"The essence is taking a step back to look, doing a diagnosis, looking at who's important, what's important and what you can do that's under your control to produce better outcomes," Friedman said. "The big, big idea is being more conscious, more deliberate about the choices you make with respect to where you put your attention, your energy and your effort."
What I like about Friedman's concept, aside from its common-sense simplicity, is that he has researched it extensively and found that people who move some of their focus away from work and put it on other parts of life actually tend to become more productive workers.
He breaks life up into four domains: work, family, community and self. Then he asks people to decide what level of importance they would assign to each domain, four percentages that will add up to 100 percent.
The next step is to look at how much you actually focus on those four domains, again assigning a percentage to each one.
Now you juxtapose the two sets of information and see which areas are out of whack. Maybe you think you should spend 10 percent of your time focusing on yourself, doing anything from exercise to reading to taking a class. But when you look at where your time is actually going, you see you're devoting almost no focus to that domain.
Or maybe work is eating up 70 percent of your focus, cutting sharply into the amount of time you believe you should be devoting to your family.
The disparities between where you want your attention to go and where it's actually going should prompt you to make changes. Friedman recommends making those changes in small increments, seeing if they're helpful and then continuing to tweak your focus and schedule until things fall better into line.
For example, if you feel you're carrying too much work around with you during off hours – checking email on your phone or taking calls when you're with your family – try to create periods of times where you cut yourself off electronically. Don't do an outright ban on looking at your phone outside the office, but try setting aside a couple of hours a week at first.
See what impact that has and then modify that idea until you feel a better balance has been reached.
"You can define those four domains any way you want," Friedman said. "If you're a student, it's not work or career, it's your homework or school. You can define it any way you need to. Community could be friends, neighbors, social groups, religious groups.
"'Self' captures you alone, what's inside of you, what matters most to you. This all helps people to see that there are these different parts of your life and those other parts are important to you and they interact."
Research published in Friedman's book – "Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life" – showed that when people went through this self-evaluation and took steps to line up their focus more with the areas of life important to them, their performance in all areas increased. That included work.
We spend a lot of time worrying about the things we don't seem to have time to focus on. You might be distracted at work because you feel guilty about not spending more time with your kids. Or you might skip the gym because you feel you've got to get ahead on some work.
We lose track of the way different parts of our lives interrelate, and how each brings value and feeds off the other. Given the limited time we have, it seems sensible to pay attention to where our time is going and how it might be better arranged.
"This is about claiming control, claiming a direction," Friedman said. "That seems to be the major problem of our time is that people feel a sense that the world is spinning around them and they're very reactive."
On the Harvard Business Review's website, Friedman has an online assessment you can take – we've linked to it at chicagotribune.com/assessment. Give it a try.
It's straightforward and it makes sense. And it's a lot better than standing over the Xerox machine munching on the report you meant to copy.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.
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