I’m a productivity psychologist, and I love working with humans. We’re fascinating creatures who carry our strengths and quirks with us…right into the workplace.
One of the quirkiest quirks I see among my clients is a strange but popular belief: that they can be in two places at once.
This belief often starts to emerge as their day-to-day responsibilities feel more overwhelming. They start to believe that they can “split” themselves into two (or more) selves.
They feel like these two selves can, in theory, operate independently – and accomplish twice as much!
Quantum physics aside, human beings experience time sequentially; one thing follows another. Logically, they know that they can’t be in two places at once, but they really wish they could.
Have you ever felt this way? I know I’ve wished for a magic pill, or a clone, or some other way of duplicating me.
But at the same time, I know the risks of trying to live a “double life.”
Maintaining Two Calendars Comes at a Cost
If this is starting to sound familiar, take a look at your calendar — or should I say, your “calendars,” plural. You might have a work calendar for your business obligations and a personal calendar for everything else.
Using multiple calendars introduces a level of complexity into your time management practices that is usually unnecessary and can cause problems.
The first issue is how you handle the inevitable areas of overlap between the various calendars. You still have non-work responsibilities that, within reason, will need to be attended to during business hours. Attempting to maintain two calendars is a false dichotomy – you are one person, not two.
Another problem with two calendars is that you triple the amount of maintenance you have to do with your calendar system – yes, triple.
With two calendars, you have to:
- maintain calendar A
- maintain calendar B
- compare them to each other to ensure that you have not double-booked yourself
So acknowledge the fact that you are one person and centralize your appointments and obligations onto one calendar.
If Google calendar is something you can use at work, it has great features for calendar integration.
If you use Outlook and you’re concerned about your work colleagues viewing your personal appointments, you can still include them — just mark those calendar entries private.
One Person Can’t Focus on Two Things
A second common manifestation of the belief that humans can be duplicated lies in the practice of multitasking.
The notion that you can successfully perform two or more tasks at the same time may be a source of pride, but more likely, it is inhibiting your performance.
The myth of multitasking is the belief that we can double our results by splitting our attention. The reality of multitasking is that we are not doing multiple things simultaneously – we are rapidly switching back-and-forth between tasks.
There are meaningful costs to this rapid-fire task switching. According to Stanford professor Dr. Clifford Nass, chronic multitasking takes a toll, even if you think you’re quite good at it:
People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand. [T]hey’re even terrible at multitasking. When we ask them to multitask, they’re actually worse at it.
So, what’s the alternative? Do one thing at a time.
Technically, you’re working this way anyway while multitasking. But when you commit to doing one thing at a time, at least you’re switching tasks much less rapidly, and only at appropriate stopping points.
Make it easier by reducing distractions: Turn off visual and auditory notifications of incoming email on your computer and all mobile devices.
Close or minimize your email and chat platforms during meetings or when you are working on other tasks.
You’re one person. You get one thing to focus on at a time.
Sure, You Could Try to Be and Do It All, But….
How do you break an egg? A glass? A rock? Apply pressure.
How to you “break” a human? The same way.
Where does this pressure to split your time — and yourself — come from?
You may have a desire to be the consummate professional who is not affected by home life at work.
You might wish you could be the perfect person at home who is not impacted by work stress.
Or maybe you just have a fear that even a temporary lack of focus on a task means that you’ll forget it.
Those desires and fears are real. But it can help to acknowledge these truths, too:
First, you have the ability to double- or triple-book yourself, but you can only be truly present, physically and mentally, for one appointment at a time.
Second, multitasking is simply not the most effective way to work. Give yourself the gift of focus. You work environment may not allow this all day every day, but find opportunities.
Finally, you may be adding unnecessary pressure to your work and life through your efforts to be everywhere — and do everything — at once.
It’s okay to give yourself permission to be one person, in one place, doing one thing. Really.