Maximizing Your Productivity When Time Is Your Scarcest Commodity

Time is one of your most precious commodities. Use it wisely.
Time is one of your most precious commodities. Use it wisely. (Unsplash/Harshal Hirve)

I can hear my best friend typing an email in the background as we talk on the phone. She jokes that the only uninterrupted, single-focused time she gets in an average day is the five minutes she spends in the shower. But neither one of us is really laughing.

Maybe you can relate.

Wishful Thinking

Days dash by at warp speed—an endless stream of e-mails, phone calls, meetings, interruptions and deadlines. It seems that the only way to get it all done—to fit in everything we feel like we "have" to do—is to multitask. Yep, two things at once. Or maybe three or four or even five.

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So you can imagine our surprise—actually, no, let's call it our defensiveness—when someone dared to question how effective multitasking really is. Had we been deceived? Had we lost our sense of reason somewhere between the looming to-do lists, blinking instant message icons and stacks of papers to sort through during the next phone call?

"It's basic human nature to take part in wishful thinking," says Dr. David Meyer, a University of Michigan professor and multitasking expert. "But if you do a Google search on 'multitasking,' most of the stuff you'll find will be blog pages of people ranting and raving about how bad and oversold it all is. Everybody's raving against it, but it hasn't stopped yet. And I don't know that it ever will fully stop. People keep thinking they're going to find the pot of gold at the end of the multitasking rainbow."

More Time but Less Productive

I have to admit: I've been on that list, and I know I'm not alone. So I thought I'd try a little experiment: I e-mailed (while eating my lunch) six of the busiest people I know and asked what they thought. The list included a few executives, an entrepreneur and a single mom. Some admitted they were just too busy to answer my questions. The rest admitted to the weary, frustrated feeling that they'd never "catch up."

"Just because I've got several plates spinning at once doesn't mean they're not wobbling," says Tracey Bumpus, a writer and editor. And it's not just at work. "I do this quite often at home," the single mom adds. "I may have a load of laundry going, while working on my laptop, while watching a show on TV, while helping my son with his homework. Am I doing a lot of things? Yes. Am I doing anything well? Probably not."

The problem, Meyer says, is that we might think we're doing two or more things at the same time, but actually we're having to "switch" between tasks. And that time spent switching adds up. As a result, we're less productive than we think we are—and we're spending more time at it.

Are You Frazzing?

But that's not all. Managers are increasingly asking subordinates to do more with less, and we've developed such a cultural expectation to be "accessible" through technological devices that we're constantly interrupted while frantically trying to do our work. There's actually a new name for it: "frazzing."

"Our time really is fragmented, and people now have a very difficult time prioritizing things," says time management expert Mark Lamendola. "If the boss says, 'I need this done as soon as possible,' you may find that you now have six things that are all priority one. The answer seems to be doing them all at the same time, so it doesn't look like you're not doing any of them."

But here's the shocker: Lamendola does not see the solution to the problem as a matter of being more efficient at prioritizing or delegating, for example. Instead, he looks at it as a matter of self-respect. "When you start respecting yourself," he explains, "you start managing your time a whole lot differently. You forget about trying to please everybody, and you start saying, 'This is what I'm able to do in the time that I have.'"

Slow Down

Lamendola's response reminds me of my friend Kelly Tolson, an executive at a health care solutions company. During the past year, she's found herself wanting to be more fully present in whatever she's doing.

She journals and prays every day, and she spends an hour reading and another hour exercising. She's no longer busier than others around her, she says, because she decides not to be. Tolson develops weekly to-do lists for both her personal and professional life and strives to do 80 percent of what's on the lists well. Her sense of balance carries over, and as a result, the world slows down.

Lamendola agrees. "At some point, people need to understand it's OK not to be everything to everybody," he adds. "You can do only so much, and life is very short. It's not supposed to be about being stressed out, trying to meet some ideal."

This article originally appeared at

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