How 'Spacewalking' My To-Do List Helps Me Work Smarter, Not Harder
November 29, 2018
I’ve always prided myself on my ability to multitask.
Writing an email? Sure, I can do it while cooking dinner.
Outlining a story? Definitely, I’ll get it done while I’m in that meeting.
Watching all seasons of The Great British Baking Show? On it—I’ll definitely savor every delish bake while I also talk to my mom on the phone, play with my dog, delete spam emails, and put together a data report.
But multitasking is like hitting the snooze button: It feels productive in the moment, but it actually throws off our productivity.
Most importantly, multitasking is actually a myth. (Gasp!) Our brains are only able to focus on one thing at a time. When we think we’re splitting our focus between multiple things, what we're really doing is switching tasks and interrupting any sort of flow we may have found.
The fix is simple: We need to monotask—which is the fancy way of saying just do one thing at a time. But it’s easier said than done, especially when we’ve made a habit of trying to do five things at once.
I found myself in this situation after all this research rained on my multitasking parade: I wanted to just do one thing at a time, but I didn’t know how to monitor my task switching ways.
The weird hack that I found helps: “spacewalking” my to-do list.
How to Spacewalk Your To-Do List
You know those dramatic scenes in space movies when an astronaut goes out on a spacewalk to repair the spacecraft, tethering themselves directly in front of what they need to fix?
It's a real thing astronauts do, and IRL it looks a little something like this:
I recently started visualizing my monotasking self like that.
I’m tethered to the one thing I need to focus on at that moment—whether it’s the meeting happening around me, the email I’m writing, or the proposal I’m working on—and I’m safe from drifting out into space, aka the wide, wide universe of other things I could be working on. It forces me to pick one thing to work on and wear blinders to the rest.
Here's me, latching on to that one task that's getting my attention:
When I’m trying to do multiple things at once? That’s when there's no tether—and I start drifting off into the abyss of the universe, closer towards the black hole that is my endless to-do list.
I can feel it when it happens: My focus drifts from that email to that Slack message to that text, and, before I know it, I have 10 different tabs open, Instagram up on my phone, and the TV on because why not?
Multitasking me looks a little something like this—sure, I'm taking it all in, but not really getting much done:
It might sound silly, but the whole "spacewalk" concept helps me do two things: Flag when I’m unfocused and gently tether myself back to the one thing that deserves my attention.
For me, half the battle with getting focused is not being tough on myself when I do get unfocused. The spacewalking visualization puts power back in my hands—I might drift off into to-do list space for a little bit, but I always have the power to steer myself back towards my focus. (Because my spacesuit has jet thrusters, of course.)
Give it a try the next time you find yourself trying to do all the things—but not making much progress on any of the things. Ask yourself: What’s the one thing I want to “tether” to right now? What’s the mission of this spacewalk? Then, work your way through that to-do list one spacewalk at a time.