In the 1960s, speed-reading courses were all the rage. Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics was one of many courses that thousands of people took, in a desperate attempt to keep up with the unprecedented jet-age torrent of reading material—all of it on paper.
Today we never hear about speed-reading, but not because it didn’t work. People can be trained to read very rapidly with high comprehension—and a few people do. But, as most people came to realize, speed isn’t the most important thing when it comes to reading. What is, oddly, is slowing down. It’s the pondering and reflecting—it’s the deciding what your reading means to you and, sometimes, acting on it.
Eleanor Roosevelt (who lived until 1962) said, “What counts, in the long run, is not what you read; it is what you sift through your own mind.”
On a regular basis, it seems, we have to re-learn that quality, not quantity, is what matters. Today’s tantalizing version of speed-reading is multi-tasking.
Multi-tasking offers a fool’s-gold way to cram more life into life. And although Eleanor Roosevelt is no longer here to help wise us up, we have other people who can. One of the best is Julie Morgenstern.
Over breakfast in New York one day last fall, Julie gave me counsel. After listening to me complain about spending too much time in front of my computer yet always feeling behind, she surprised me by suggesting that I spend the first and last hour of my day screenless.
I can report to you, dear reader, that when I’ve managed to do this, I’m a much happier and more balanced fellow. (In fact, I did it this morning, before sitting down to finish these words on my screen that will soon appear on yours.)
I think you’ll enjoy other surprising counsel, captured below in this exclusive interview with Levenger Press editor Mim Harrison, from this American treasure named Julie.
Julie Morgenstern: I’m going to give you three, because when we talk about organization in terms of time, there are three common mistakes.
The first is writing your to-do’s in too many places rather than settling on a single place for them all. Everywhere you need to be, everything you need to do—for home, work, life—all of it should be listed in one place.
We can only prioritize in context. If we never see the whole picture, we’re not confident in the decisions we make. Even the most accomplished people struggle with this: “Where do I capture it all?”
Levenger: So a consolidated to-do list corrects the first mistake. What are the other big organizational mistakes people make?
Julie: Waiting until the morning of to create or review the day’s to do’s. The morning of is too late. The pressures of the day are already upon you. Review “tomorrow + 2”--tomorrow plus two days beyond that—by the end of the day before. That way you have the time to mentally prepare and make adjustments as needed. This three-day arc provides context for good daily decision making, and keeps you from getting caught up in unnecessary urgencies.
Levenger: Does it matter how long the list is?
Julie: Yes. And that’s the third most common mistake: not planning realistically in terms of how long things will take. People go into a state of denial or wishful thinking about their daily plans, and then run out of time. That leads to a feeling of defeat. By bravely recognizing the limits of each day and how long each to-do on your list will take, we see in advance what will or won’t fit, and become more strategic. Time estimating is the gateway skill to good time management. Once you look at the math, it become easier to delegate, say no, and overcome all the other psychological resistance to making good decisions about where you spend your time.
Levenger: Is multitasking (a) productive or (b) just inevitable, given the many things that seem to vie for our attention these days?
Julie: I would say “c.”
Levenger: Meaning it’s both productive and inevitable?
Julie [laughing]: No. Meaning it’s neither. Multi-tasking is an old-fashioned, obsolete time-management concept. And yet, our world is conducive to it. Wherever you go, a screen is within arm’s reach of your elbow. It’s very tempting to multi-task.
But in the past seven years science has proved, in study after study, that the brain cannot toggle effectively between tasks. You’re on the phone, scanning email, and glancing at the report on your desk, all at the same time. It feels efficient, but it’s just the opposite. It takes the brain four times longer to recognize and process each thing it’s working on when switching back and forth between tasks.
Levenger: So it actually takes more time to complete each task, even though we thought it was otherwise.
Julie: Right. It’s more time-consuming and less effective. Also, brain scientists tell us that what we learn while we’re multi-tasking has a very low retention rate. Which means we have to learn it all over again. For example, in a one-hour phone call with six people on the phone, there are maybe seven minutes when everyone is actually paying attention at the same time. How efficient is that? People end up needing four or five meetings when one would’ve been sufficient if everyone was fully present and prepared.
Levenger: Because they’re also checking emails and glancing at the report on their desk.
Julie: Exactly. We are in a gravitational pull toward multi-tasking, and we must fight it like the dickens.
Levenger: So how do we defy gravity?
Julie: You have to retrain yourself to work sequentially and focus fully on one thing at a time. Since the texture of our world has become more fragmented, we need to learn to break down our work into smaller pieces; to fit the smaller windows of time within which we can focus. For example, if you have a six-hour project, break it into a series of six one-hour steps. It’s easier to resist distractions when you have something specific and measurable to focus on for an hour at a time.
Levenger: Are there any other ways to boost our efficiency?
Julie: Yes. I call it batching. When you batch tasks, you’re more efficient. Think of how people will cluster their errands, doing them all in one trip or in one day, rather than in knee-jerk fashion. This saves time.
When you switch between different kinds of thinking or workstreams, it takes more effort. It’s like opening different drawers in your brain. You have to keep one drawer open awhile, to give your brain a chance to perform that task optimally. Say you’re a salesperson. If you batch all your cold calls, by the time you get to your third one, you’ve got your mojo; you’re “on.”
Time management is about how to organize, batch and sequence your day to maximize your energy and your brainpower for peak performance. That’s true for your personal life as well as your professional one.
Julie: Yes. It’s like a hand that guides you. “Do” often requires more time than “call.” It involves different parts of your brain—different drawers.
Levenger: Why is balance such an important aspect of your philosophy?
Julie: If you don’t consciously carve out time for each part of your life, one department will monopolize it. That’s because we gravitate toward what’s either the loudest or the easiest. Always try to balance—between work, family, friendship, community. When people strike the right balance, they are fueled: they are energized, satisfied, whole.
Levenger: That gravity again. How do we achieve balance?
Julie: Through time mapping. When you know time is carved out, you make the most efficient use of it. You subdivide your schedule into blocks that guarantee, for example, that you’ll spend time not just on your work but on yourself as well.
The art and craft of time mapping is figuring out the right structure, depending on what feels right for you. It can be very structured or it can be looser.
Levenger: Your organizational tools are paper-based. How do you see the role of paper evolving in our digital world?
Julie: Planning how to spend your time is not a mechanical process. It requires deep, reflective thinking. Neuroscience is telling us that even though we can do everything on line, it keeps us in a shallow part of our brain, the frontal cortex. We lose a sense of judgment. So we need screen breaks throughout the day to go beyond the frontal cortex: to go deeper.
On paper, you stop and reflect. “What’s the highest and best use of my time?” It’s a thought-full process. Plus, a lot of people think better on paper.
I’m not anti-technology. I have and use an iPhone, the MacBook Air, and some very cool headphones for when I go to the gym. All of our contacts and the majority of our filing system are digitized. We use Skype for coaching calls, and I give seminars all over the world—most recently, Asia, Brazil, South Africa and Switzerland—using HDVC from New York.
But in 23 years of teaching time management, I’ve watched many people migrate to technology for their to-do’s, and then come back to paper. The Wall Street Journal conducted a survey in late December of last year on the kind of system people used for their to-do’s. Over half of them used paper-based systems.
Something about writing helps to process and emblazon your thoughts and ideas on your brain. In writing, there’s more of a relationship. It’s you talking to you, rather than a machine telling you.
Levenger: Or as we say at Levenger, “With paper, it’s personal.”
Julie: Yes. Personal, and productive.
Now to you, dear reader: How do you stay focused, when all around you the digital is dancing? I’d love to hear. Just click on the Comments link below with your submission. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you'll connect to Comments).