Cognitive neuroscientists and psychologists over the world have repeatedly proven that ‘multitasking’ is a myth.
There are about 2.5% of people, according to a test done by David Strayer and Jason Watson from the University of Utah and the University of Denver at Colorado, that are indeed ‘supertaskers’.
The rest of us are in the majority; we are of the 97% of folks that need to accept that our performance will be better when we focus on one thing at a time, or what other researchers have called ‘switch-tasking’.
Basically, ‘multitasking skills’ aren’t actually as real as we thought and when they are real, it’s rare that those skills exist in everyday people. These skills when they do exist in someone makes them a ‘supertasker’.
You may have been told that women are great, natural multitaskers because we think to set the laundry before putting the casserole in the oven since both will take about the same amount of time to finish. Due to the magic of having two tasks completed in the same allotment of time, we have been dubbed with the talent that doesn’t actually exist.
But just because we thought to do those two things above, and write an article while backing up client work on redundant servers and update two laptop computers for new staff to pick up tomorrow – again, because all take the same around the same amount of time to complete, is this an advantage?
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Is ‘multitasking’ even a special skill?
Science seems to keep saying no or only for a very special few. But it’s easy to see why we’ve adopted such a mistaken name for getting lots of different things finished in the same allotment of time, and why it has made some people feel special. Heck, it fooled me for years.
But look a little more closely at what is really happening with the work at home, freelancing, ‘multitasking’ phenom of a person (let’s not be sexist), that thinks to get all these items checked off her list in roughly the same two hours.
And, to be fair, let’s compare them to the person who decides that they will only focus on writing the article for two hours and leave those other items for later.
It will become apparent to anyone that the quality of the article done by the multitasker will be different, and has more propensity to be of lower quality, than that of the fully focused freelancer.
Why is that?
Switching focus leaves more margin for errors, in quality, sure, but from just a physiological standpoint, in actual effort.
Think of our phenom, faking her focus on her article trying to give each sentence its due, while clicking on the backup tab as the client’s data transfers, listening for the oven and laundry machine chimes and trying to think of a snazzier headline than that of the other guy that wrote an article like this one.
Whereas, our fully focused freelancer uses the time to get into a flow, thinking of all the articles she’s read and reviewed on the subject, thinking of her own life, and putting more aspects of what she’s been exposed to in each sentence she types.
She is putting her efforts, physically and mentally, into the article in a way that may lessen her need for a thesaurus, flipping to search engines for fleshing out ideas for points and she can draft it out in a much fuller way with a tone specific to her own writing voice – which is valuable in a world with our internet!
Focus vs Multitask: Which is better?
Well, that depends on your priorities and perspective an, frankly, I am not here to judge the multitasker and tell her she is faking her focus whenever she is trying to handle more than one thing in a given allotment of time.
(I do take issue with anyone claiming she is always going to more successful if she always handles her life this way.)
And even our fully focused freelancer will sometimes need to glance at her phone for the time, which will pull her ever so slightly from her ‘zone’ as she writes, because she needs to pick up her kids on time.
Why everyone wants to be a multitasker
We all want to optimize our time and give our all to the work and the projects that we love. We all want to make sure that the people we love are taken care of and our environment is one that promotes good work, i.e. my desk clutter must be cleared because it affects how I work.
We all want to make certain we are prioritizing the right things and spending our time the way we intended for the day. At the end of each day we want to know we got the big stuff accomplished.
The only reason the term ‘multitasker’ became so sexy is the desire to optimize our time. If you weren’t one, you were trying to read books and go to seminars to learn how to become one.
Later, it was called out as a dirty word and we started to shout at people if they interrupted us for three seconds because we were giving our work a scary amount of savant-like attention…like a mad scientist disrupted and angry over a quick question about lunch.
Science confused some people, as it sometimes does, telling us for a few years that ‘multitasking’ like a Stepford wife is the thing everyone should be and then realizing that, no, maybe not?
What to do instead of multitasking
People like you and me who want to:
- Give the best of ourselves to our work and creative projects
- Get important life and adulting things done each week
- Have energy left over to not snap at those we love
- Feel like life is moving forward and we are accomplishing our goals
This means that there are days and weeks when we spend 1:00 PM to 3:00 PM getting five things completed.
But, and I think most importantly, this also means there are going to be more days and weeks where we are being a fully focused mad scientist, giving our all to the one thing in front of us for an undistracted two hours. (Heaven help the person that asks us about lunch at the wrong time on that day!)
Optimization of time takes a skill that we ALL have the capacity to learn and get better at.
This is the skill we need more of and the one skill that can help us truly get the time back that we think we are losing when we forgot to turn on the dishwasher before we sat down to finish that financial report.
1. Don’t fake it
What is really the most important three things that need to be completed this week? Are these things able to be completed in the time you’ve allotted for them this week?
If not, don’t lie to yourself about the time you think it will take. Break it down into hour chunks and see how many hours one whole item needs. Then add ten percent more time to each.
That’s the true allotment of time each item will take to complete.
Now, without faking it, can you finish these important things this week or not? Be honest.
2. Multitask with the mini-tasks
Once you break down the big three things for the week, two of them may have mini-tasks built into the completion of them.
Great! This means you can have the best of both worlds because you can spread your energy during those time allotments to a mini-tasks and something else less urgent, getting those things done during the same time block. Hooray!
3. Focus with force
Now we have that one big thing that’s left. We broke it down into chunks and we see it has seven parts to it to complete this week as well and each part will require your heart, mind and soul.
When you work it out this way, you will know very clearly what time blocks to protect. It’s such an amazing feeling to accomplish work this way, especially when you protect the time around it. It gives you an energy boost just thinking about HOW you will protect it (think mad scientist…)
Don’t you love it when your work is reflecting who you really are?
When you optimize and don’t compromise, you protect the work you do, and it shows. That’s the legacy I want to leave behind!
Start optimizing your time
Tips abound, and the research is extensive on multitasking versus switch-tasking. Prioritization often seems to fall under the ‘time management’ umbrella and yet, the point of prioritizing is to optimize the few precious hours we get in a productive adult life.
Optimizing is really the skill we need most because it forces us to dig deep inside and choose what’s most important to us personally. I’m standing by that.
Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com