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Op/Ed

Your ability to be productive and multi-task may actually stem from anxiety

(EDITORIAL) Like most modern folks, I multi-task like a champ. But maybe that’s not a good thing – this expert says it’s a result of anxiety.

Woman leaning against window expressing stress

If you find yourself constantly attempting to close a hundred or so tabs while answering your work email and talking on the phone, you’re not alone. In an interview between Oliver Burkeman and Gretchen Rubin, the former unpacked a variety of productivity fallacies that we seem to normalize – and what the surprisingly simple alternatives look like.

Spoiler alert: Focusing on too many things at once may feel good, but it’s often unproductive – and, as it turns out, inspired by stress.

“The desire to focus on multiple things at once is often driven by anxiety,” says Burkeman, “by the worry that we might not have enough time to do all the things we’re convinced we need to do in order to justify our existence on the planet.”

It’s easy to see this philosophy play out in a microcosm, especially since it’s something of which many of us are guilty. Starting the day out by making an exhaustive list of everything that needs to be accomplished, grouping by similar activities to see where we can “multitask,” and then bum-rushing everything else as quickly as possible feels like the smart way to beat time.

Unfortunately, none of us are winning that race. But, given that we all want the secret to productivity and happiness balance, Rubin asked Burkeman what truly makes him happy, and his answer is a bit of a revelation: “Doing one thing at a time – and, wherever possible, seeing that thing through to completion before beginning another thing.”

Of course, that isn’t always possible – Burkeman acknowledges this right away – but, as pointed out before, anxiety that we’re somehow missing out on optimization of our time here is usually the driving force behind a frantic, less-productive process.

Learning to let go of the idea that we’re going to succeed in the pursuit of multitasking and embracing a slower, more methodical approach (again, wherever possible) is a quietly elegant answer to this age-old problem.

I, too, am guilty of anxiety-fed action. I often find myself moving through the day in a frenetic, possibly hazardous manner, tackling things like cleaning, cooking, paying attention to my animals, planning for work, and even grading (don’t tell anyone) at the same time. It’s a level of stress in which I’ve learned to find comfort.

But this summer off has taught me the same lesson espoused by Burkeman: That focusing on one thing at a time, seeing it through to completion, and closing the metaphorical tab in my brain before moving on to the next thing – as slow as it may feel – leaves me happier, less stressed, and more involved in the individual processes I seek to complete than the alternative.

I’d encourage you to try the same, albeit perhaps after a cup or two of coffee.

Jack Lloyd has a BA in Creative Writing from Forest Grove's Pacific University; he spends his writing days using his degree to pursue semicolons, freelance writing and editing, oxford commas, and enough coffee to kill a bear. His infatuation with rain is matched only by his dry sense of humor.

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