Pick a direction and go with it: Why multitasking doesn’t work

Before my senior year, I was sitting in an interview as the HR manager asked what set me apart from the other candidates. My response was, “I will multitask the crap out of you.” That’s a direct quote.

I was never more efficient than I was my senior year of college. I operated on autopilot—following a weights-class-work-track practice-library-sleep routine from the time my alarm went off to the time I fell back in bed.

Multitasking worked for me because I existed in a structured environment. I never made a decision on how to workout or when to study, because my training and test schedules made those decisions for me.

Multitasking does not work for me now.

My ultimate demise is wanting to do everything. Even when my bandwidth is stretched too thin, if I hear about a new project, I want a piece. At any given time, I’ll have 7,287 ideas running through my head. I have to forcibly push 7,286 of those out if I want to get any work done. Otherwise, I jump from project A, to project B, back to A, decide I should start on C—until I eventually get so caught up on deciding what to do, I end up doing nothing. I’ll just sit in this weird frozen state of endless ideas and zero direction.

Does anyone else every feel like this?? Where you want to do everything and you get stuck doing nothing?

Two summers ago I went white water rafting for the first time. While being shuttled to our drop-off site, our guide told us what to do in every possible scenario:

What to do ifyou fall out of the boat.

What to do ifyou fall out of the boat and get stuck in rapids.

What to do if…you fall out of the boat and get trapped underneath it.

I’m not someone who gets worried easily. When I heard that last comment, I thought, “That is the the one thing that would truly scare me—if I swam to the surface and realized I couldn’t come up for air.”

So of course, I got trapped underneath the raft.

In the event someone gets trapped, these are the instructions: Pick a direction, and go with it. No matter what happens or what thoughts go running through your head, do not deviate from your original direction. Keep your hands on the underside of the raft, and crawl yourself out. No matter how badly you regret or doubt your decision, keep going in the first direction your chose. 

I was probably trapped for all of 25-30 seconds, but it felt like I was underwater for two minutes. I never panicked; I did exactly what the guide told me. Even when the raft hit a second stage of rapids and I lost all the progress I made, I never switched directions. Eventually, I made it far enough to where another passenger saw my foot and yanked me out.

Every time I feel myself entering that frozen state of being unable to decide what to do, I tell myself, “Pick a direction and go with it.” I’ll follow it whether it’s a short-term:

  • If I sign up for a class at the gym, I go—even if I start wondering whether it’s the best use of my workout.
  • If I start typing a paragraph for a blog post, I write it—even if start doubting my idea.

…Or a long term decision:

  • When I found myself saying, “I just want to be back in D.C. with my friends,” I moved there—even when I questioned the cost of living.
  • When I realized I couldn’t be creative while working in sales, I switched to marketing—even when I worried about the salary decrease.

Or, if you need specifics:

  1. If you can’t decide on what to do for a workout:

Form a pattern, and stick to it. Follow an every-other-day pattern of intensity (i.e. lifting/intervals Monday-Wednesday-Friday, counterbalancing with yoga/active recover Tuesday/Thursday). Write your pattern at the beginning of the week and don’t stray from it.

  1. If you can’t decide how to start your day:

Make a to-do list, and number it in the order you will accomplish each task. I will even write in daily items (i.e. shower, eat lunch) as placeholders signaling how long I will spend on each task. You will save more time following your schedule blindly, than deciding where to start.

  1. If you can’t decide what project should take first priority:

What is the one thing you can’t stop thinking about? Do that first. Even if the one thing you can’t stop thinking about is your cable bill or your FSA account, just get it taken care of. Sometimes you just can’t free up any mental capacity if you’re distracted by small to-dos.

When I was in college, my coach would tell me to enter each race with a plan. It never made sense to me. In my eyes there was no way to predict a race, which could throw off my plan at any point. However, the times I stepped off the line with a course of action in mind, are the times I ran best.

Days and races are unpredictable. No matter who passes you, or what is thrown at you, stick to your plan. There is a reason you chose that direction in the first place.

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For All the F Words
You have flaws. You f-up on a daily basis. And that should be ok.