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Multitasking, priorities and managing stress

By Dr Fauntine Lariba (Osteopath)

Multitasking is a brilliant way to achieve a number of tasks in a short amount of time, furthermore doing one thing at a time is not always practically feasible. However, constantly pushing for efficiency can end up being stressful and exhausting, inviting us to consider ‘is there a place for monotasking?’ We need to discern what is required by the situation at hand. Prioritising tasks will assist with stress management and help to conserve our time and energy, both precious limited resources. Too often we get swept up in the flurry of our urgent tasks and forget about our important tasks.

More is more?

A fast paced lifestyle can make for an impressive individual but at some point we all need to stop and wind down. If not we may find ourselves existing in a ‘productive’ state of constant panic, overwhelmed with endless to-do lists. This stress will eventually manifest in the physical body, whereby it comes crashing down with sickness and/or injury.

Of course multitasking is not inherently bad, feeling productive and accomplished can relieve stress. However the practices we adopt should ideally serve us, constant multitasking and having an unrelenting drive for efficiency is stressful and will become counter productive. 

One at a time 

We have all experienced the solace of getting lost in the details of completing one task. This timeless sensation is a flow state whereby our attention is narrowed and we are fully attuned to the task at hand. Being in a flow state can also be a mindfulness practice, as you are bringing awareness inwards and to the present moment. 

In the digital age we are constantly bombarded with stimulus from every direction. We can find an opportunity for peace in dedicating our attention to one single task. 

You do want to be efficient with some tasks, just not all tasks. Being efficient with the right tasks is an art and sometimes it’s necessary to take a step back to uncover which tasks truly deserve our attention. The following section will help you steer your energy towards the important tasks and away from the seemingly urgent distractions. 

Urgent vs Important

The following four categories can help to clarify and prioritise:

1. Urgent and important

2. Important and not urgent

3. Urgent and not important

4. Not urgent and not important 

We have lots of important tasks but perhaps they are not all urgent. Dwight D Eisenhower famously said “what is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important”. This thought process can be further explored in the matrix below.

This matrix is a good tool for mental clarity. It highlights what is truly important and what our mind has mis categorized as important. Categorising tasks is challenging as modern technology bombards us with false “urgent” tasks, such as the endless digital notifications that demand our immediate attention. Eisenhower reminds us that we should be careful to not spend too much energy on these non urgent and unimportant tasks. The important tasks are usually less appealing as they are harder, require focus, effort and typically don’t offer instant gratification. We should also remember that our time is finite and there is an opportunity cost in constantly de-prioritizing the important tasks for the more alluring instantly gratifying urgent tasks.  

Final thoughts

To be fully present with a task we need to perform only one at a time. Indeed this will limit the total number of tasks we can perform (at once) but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It invites us to clarify our priorities and will focus our energy on the important things we need to achieve rather than the sheer number of tasks we can complete. Monotasking will be closer to a state of flow rather than a chaotic panic, and the outcome will be that we achieve tasks that we have deliberately prioritised rather than blindly rushing to plough through any task that presents itself. 

Our lives are inherently stressful, but we can mitigate these stresses with the right mental approach. Hopefully this article has encouraged some honest reflection and has equipped you with some tools to help with task prioritisation, so that next time you are faced with a stress inducing to do list you can leave feeling empowered instead of overwhelmed.

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November 9, 2020

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