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Focus: How job seekers can resist multi-tasking

Don't waste your brainpower trying to juggle multiple tasks; instead, prioritize and focus.

Don’t waste your brainpower trying to juggle multiple tasks; instead, prioritize and focus.

One of the ways you can lose track of your life is by trying to do a million things at once. There was a time when multi-tasking was a skill every employer wanted in a candidate and every job seeker wanted on their resume. Now, many of us are realizing the pitfall-strewn path of the multi-focused. My supportive colleague, insightful business coach, and chocolate-loving friend Kathleen Watson offers wonderfully sage advice for job seekers trying to fit a job search into an already overloaded life.

By Kathleen Watson
Stepping Into Big

Learning how to avoid the temptation to multi-task is not as easy as, say, learning how to hem a piece of clothing. However, there are steps you can take to develop this productive habit of “one thing at a time.”

(If you don’t know why this is important, read Kathleen’s post about the dangers of getting sucked into the myth of “productive multi-tasking.”)

Step 1: Think about what you’ll need – and why you need it.

Replacing a counterproductive habit with a better one isn’t something that happens on a whim. It’s vital that you have:

  • Clarity about your key goals.
  • Commitment to making them happen.
  • An egg timer (or an online or smart phone version).
  • A gut-level understanding of how being more productive in less time will improve your income, your outlook on life, your relationships, and your health.

Step 2: Identify your immediate top priority.

I’m sure you’ve heard the recommendation to put only your top three priorities on today’s To Do list.

However, if you’re prone to trying to multi-task, I’m going to recommend an even leaner approach: Identify and commit to doing the one thing that will do the most to move your job search forward right now. Updating your resume, doing company research, or contacting a LinkedIn connection – whatever it is, set your sights – and your concentration – on that task and that task only.

Now, any important task is likely to involve a lot more than just a single step, and that’s just fine. Yes, your goal is to break the habit of multi-tasking, but that doesn’t mean you can’t shift back and forth between all the myriad activities that relate to your true number-one priority. Remember, your productivity plummets if you lack focus.

Step 3: Shut down and/or put away anything that doesn’t relate to your top priority.

Yes, that’s just as scary as it sounds. If you’re updating your resume, close your email program and go offline. If you have to be online for research purposes, open only those windows related directly to your research topic.

The idea here is to remove as many potential distractions as possible, so you’re much less likely to be tempted to try splitting your concentration between two or more (unrelated) activities.

Step 4: Identify the progress you want to make on this priority today.

Given that there are probably a whole bunch of steps you can (and must) take to finish this task, it’s entirely possible you’ll be unable to accomplish all of them in a single sitting. So, what you want to do is identify what constitutes an acceptable chunk of progress to make, then stay focused on getting to that point.

Step 5: Stay fresh and keep from getting overwhelmed by shifting gears deliberately and intentionally.

As I see it, there are two big challenges in breaking the multi-tasking habit:

  1. Thinking you’ve got so much to do that you have no choice but to multi-task.
  2. Panicking at the thought of everything that’s not getting done if you concentrate on just one activity.

Fortunately, you can address both of these challenges by remembering that you always have the right (not to mention the responsibility) to choose what you deem to be best for yourself at this point in time.

So, instead of thinking that you have to work on only your top-priority task the whole dang day, remember that staying focused on one important activity doesn’t mean you can’t switch to another important task.

This is where your trusty egg, phone, or online timer can come in handy. If you feel yourself breaking into a cold sweat at the thought of all those other things you’re not working on, minimize the stress by making a bargain with yourself: You’ll work exclusively on the project you identified as your top priority until you’ve made a predetermined amount of progress OR until you’ve worked on it for 30 minutes – whichever comes first.

Now, 30 minutes may not seem like enough time to make substantial progress on an important project, but it definitely can be – IF it’s 30 minutes of focused, concentrated, purposeful activity. At the end of that half hour, you’ll either find you’ve accomplished what you wanted to (time to celebrate!), or you’ll be able to give yourself guilt-free permission to switch tasks.

The trick here is to be intentional about shifting your focus. If you make thoughtful, conscious decisions about changing focus after you’ve reached an acceptable stopping point on one project, you’ll be much less like to act like a raven distracted by all the bright, shiny objects around you.

Step 6: Acknowledge and wildly celebrate your increased productivity.

Sometimes, I’ll place a piece of notepaper on my desk and jot down every task I’ve completed that day. This is a helpful exercise because:

  • It always shows me how much I’ve accomplished, even on those days it doesn’t feel like I’ve been hugely productive.
  • Sometimes, it shows me I’ve been laser focused.
  • Sometimes, it shows me I’ve succumbed to those shiny objects.

It’s important that you acknowledge and celebrate your successes when developing your new habit of focusing your efforts on just one project at a time. Reinforcement will go a long way to making the effort feel worthwhile. (Note: You really can’t go wrong with chocolate as part of your celebratory back-patting.)


Kathleen Watson specializes in working with two types of entrepreneurs: She un-sticks those who are paralyzed by overwhelm and focuses those who are busy busy busy but not terribly productive. For me, she provided invaluable marketing perspective. Whichever description resonates with you, she can probably provide some sanity-saving tips. If you’d like to explore working with Kathleen on your entrepreneurial adventure, grab a spot on her calendar for a get-acquainted call.




Multi-tasking graphic courtesy Cindy Underhill in the Creative Commons section of Flickr.



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