Stop doing this (task hopping) and you’ll thank me

Updated to Business on January 22, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

I teach productivity. I don’t like to call it that. It’s the same with most motivational speakers. They prefer to say they talk on “leadership”, or “personal mastery”, but really it’s motivation. For me, it’s productivity.

And one trick has been trumping all the rest lately. I think it’s a game changer.

First, the problem.

When you switch to a new task you satisfied your curiosity, but stymied your results. Put another way, flitting from writing, to email, back to writing, to looking something up on Google, to FaceBook, back to writing, and then on to Twitter, is a recipe for mental potpourri.


I’m not talking about multi-tasking – although it’s still felon #1 – I’m talking about task hopping.

Some research (don’t ask me where I found this gem) claims that task hopping can cost you a loss of 25% of productivity.

This is one of my weaknesses. I get off a phone call, move on to some new task, and then another and then, hours later (sometimes days later), realize I haven’t recorded what I committed to working on. I did that just yesterday after an important client call. Scary!


The solution to task hopping is pretty simple: stop doing it. Good luck with that.

The actual approach I use always starts with noticing. Call it benchmarking, current reality check-in, or just a good laugh, noticing your behaviour and patterns is where you have to start.

Pick just a couple of hours, say tomorrow morning. And notice when you leave a half-finished task to hop to another. I think you’ll be surprised how frequently this happens.  

Here’s what I bet you’ll notice:

  1. you are guilty. We all are. Task hopping is fun. You get to titillate your mind by channel surfing your tasks. Who cares that you aren’t finishing anything – this is fun!
  2. you are most likely to task hop when you have hard work in front of you. There you are facing an overdue, half-baked proposal when your email alert pops up. Time to hop!
  3. by giving a little attention to what you are doing and you do it less. It’s like presenting at Toastmasters, everyone says “umm” a lot less.

Following Charles Duhigg’s four-step recipe (The Power of Habit) for changing a habit, we (1) identified the “cue” (I task hop when I have tough work to do), (2) recognized the reward (ex-lax for my brain).

Next, we need to (3) invent a new routine and (4) “reward” it.


The next step is relatively easy. At the moment of temptation, stop.

There is a moment when you consciously allow yourself to be tempted. A thought will flit through your frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex that says something like “Oh, that’s interesting…” At that point you need to recognize what’s happening. 

You are going down a slippery slope (cue, reward) that will steal ten minutes from the more-important work and leave you feeling distracted, frustrated, and even a bit guilty. Not good.

The trick is to catch yourself. Say “No, thanks”, make a note and turn your head back to what you are doing. 


I did that this morning.

I was working on this blog (which has to be finished today) and here’s what got my attention:

  • I need to book a flight to the Social Media Marketing World conference – I should email my brother first about a visit in L.A. afterwards.
  • I’m reminded I want to write a blog about Duhigg’s book – I should note that in Evernote.
  • I like writing in Mac Pages, but I wonder how that comments feature works – maybe I should look that up.
  • I’m going to Yoga later – I should check their schedule.
  • I haven’t heard back from a bureau rep. I work with – I should follow up.

And that was all in five minutes!

The new routine, is I say “No, thanks”, make a quick note on my Day List and turn back to the blog. Easy peasy – less stress and better results.


Here’s the kicker. Nothing happens without a reward. 

Once you commit to the new “No, thanks”, make a note routine you need to reward it. The simplest reward is completion. As I write this I am about 10 minutes away from shipping this blog. That feels great. 

Start your task with a reward in mind and then use that as your tease to keep returning to the work. Here are some other rewards I use:

  • a quick walking break to stretch out and re-energize.
  • allow myself some “play” time to enjoy a low-value task, like catching up on reading favourite blogs.
  • take five minutes and clean up the paper, files, and junk on my desk (that makes me feel seriously in charge).
  • brew some tea and quietly write in my journal for a few minutes.

Your reward doesn’t have to always be a big deal – it just has to be bigger than the reward that the task hopping would have given you.


When I’m on stage talking about productivity I can’t go into this much detail. But here I have the chance to drill down a bit deeper. But, here’s the thing.

Although what I’m writing about is minor, compared to say, China landing on the moon. It’s huge over time. If you task hop throughout the day, each time you could be distracting yourself for, say five minutes. Let’s suppose this happens 20 times a day. Okay, now you are at 100 minutes, or about 10 weeks a year (10 minutes/day equals about one week a year, based on a 40 hour workweek and working 50 weeks a year). Cripes! I hope that’s enough motivation to spend a few minutes just noticing.


I’m sorry that this isn’t about some cool app that sorts To-Do’s or sends evil emails to people that forget appointments. I’ll try harder.

The good news is that this one change will change your life. Promise.

photo credit.