There’s a dark side to the conveniences of the Digital Age. With smartphones that function like handheld computers, it has become increasingly difficult to leave our work behind. Sometimes it seems like we’re expected to be accessible 24/7.
How often are you ever focused on just one thing? Most of us try to meet these demands by multitasking.
Many of us have bought into the myth that we can achieve more through multitasking. In this article, I’ll show you how you can accomplish more work in less time.
Spoiler alert: multitasking may not be the answer.
Table of Contents
- Is it Humanly Possible To Multitask?
- Is Multitasking Failing You?
- Can You Really Successfully Multitask?
- A Practical Multitasking At Work Example
- Bonus: How Do You Multitask Thinking?
- Bottom Line
Is it Humanly Possible To Multitask?
Multitasking isn’t something a human being is or should be able to do as we have a very limited amount of resources provided to us by our brains and it is on us to use them where they are needed the most. However, if you ask me if multitasking is possible, I would tell you, “Yes it is”, but not in the general sense of the word.
For me, multitasking is taking care of different tasks systematically rather than simultaneously. For example, if I were presented with 4 different projects, I would first try to assess which one of them am I the most comfortable doing. Next, you need to consider the impact the project will make on your work life and if it’s something that can be adjusted into your work batches. So yes, human beings can possess the ability to multitask but only if they apply it in the right sense.
Is Multitasking a Myth?
The term “multi-tasking” was originally used to describe how microprocessors in computers work. Machines multitask, but people cannot.
Despite our inability to simultaneously perform two tasks at once, many people believe they are excellent multi-taskers.
You can probably imagine plenty of times when you do several things at once. Maybe you talk on the phone while you’re cooking or respond to emails during your commute.
Consider the amount of attention that each of these tasks requires. Chances are, at least one of the two tasks in question is simple enough to be carried out on autopilot.
We’re okay at simultaneously performing simple tasks, but what if you were trying to perform two complex tasks? Can you really work on your presentation and watch a movie at the same time? It can be fun to try to watch TV while you work, but you may be unintentionally making your work more difficult and time-consuming.
Your Brain on Multitasking
Your brain wasn’t designed to multitasking. To compensate, it will switch from task to task. Your focus turns to whatever task seems more urgent. The other task falls into the background until you realize you’ve been neglecting it.
When you’re bouncing back and forth like this, an area of the brain known as Broadmann’s Area 10 activates. Located in your fronto-polar prefrontal cortex at the very front of the brain, this area controls your ability to shift focus. People who think they are excellent multitaskers are really just putting Broadmann’s Area 10 to work.
But I can juggle multiple tasks!
You are capable of taking in information with your eyes while doing other things efficiently. Scientifically speaking, making use of your vision is the only thing you can truly do while doing something else.
For everything else, you’re serial tasking. This constant refocusing can be exhausting, and it prevents us from giving our work the deep attention it deserves.
Think about how much longer it takes to do something when you have to keep reminding yourself to focus.
Is Multitasking Failing You?
Multitasking does more bad than good to your productivity, here’s why:
Multitasking Wastes Your Time
You lose time when you interrupt yourself. People lose an average of 2.1 hours per day getting themselves back on track when they switch between tasks.
In fact, some studies suggest that doing multiple things at once decreases your productivity by as much as 40%. That’s a significant loss in efficiency. You wouldn’t want your surgeon to be 40% less productive while you’re on the operating table, would you?
Multitasking Makes You Dumber
A distracted brain performs a full 10 IQ points lower than a focused brain. You’ll also be more forgetful, slower at completing tasks, and more likely to make mistakes.
You’ll have to work harder to fix your mistakes. If you miss an important detail, you could risk injury or fail to complete the task properly.
Multitasking Is an Emotional Response.
There’s so much data suggesting that multitasking is ineffective but people insist that they can multitask.
Feeling productive fulfills an emotional need. We want to feel like we’re accomplishing something. Why accomplish just one item on the to-do list when you can check off two or three?
Multitasking Will Wear You Out
When you’re jumping from task to task, it can feel invigorating for a little while. Over time, this needs to fill every second with more and more work leads to burn out.
We’re simply not built to multitask, so when we try, the effect can be exhausting. This destroys your productivity and your motivation.
Can You Really Successfully Multitask?
Although multitasking might be bad for your productivity, there is a secondary definition the word holds that can very well be of use in your daily life. In this definition, multitasking does not mean working on multiple tasks at the same time but rather,
“managing the many tasks you have at hand in an effective manner.”
This is the secret behind successful multitasking, the process of prioritizing important tasks based on your comfort to accomplish them. Setting up a to-do list is easy if all you’re doing is listing down what needs to be done. However, it is just as important to know what needs to be done when, and why you should be doing one task before the other. This will not only increase your productivity but also allow you to multitask effectively.
In the words of the renowned Gary Keller,
“Extraordinary success is sequential, not simultaneous.”
Change Your Existing Multitasking Habit
Flitting back and forth between tasks feels second-nature after a while. This is in part because Broadmann’s Area 10 becomes better at serial tasking through time.
In addition to changing how the brain works, this serial tasking behavior can quickly turn into a habit.
Just like any bad habit, you’ll need to recognize that you need to make a change first. Luckily, there are a few simple things you can do to adjust to a lifestyle of productive mono-tasking:
1. Consciously Change Gears
Instead of trying to work on two distinct tasks at once, consider setting up a system to remind you when to change focus. This technique worked for Jerry Linenger, an American astronaut onboard the space station, Mir.
As an astronaut, he had many things to take care of every day. He set alarms for himself on a few watches. When a particular watch sounded, he knew it was time to switch tasks. This enabled him to be 100% in tune with what he was doing at any given moment.
This strategy is effective because the alarm served as his reminder for what was to come next. Linenger’s intuition about setting reminders falls in line with research conducted by Paul Burgess of University College, London on multitasking.
2. Manage Multiple Tasks Without Multitasking
Raj Dash of Performancing.com has an effective strategy for balancing multiple projects without multitasking. He suggests taking 15 minutes to acquaint yourself with a new project before moving on to other work. Revisit the project later and do about thirty minutes on research and brainstorming.
Allow a few days to pass before knocking out the project in question. While you were actively work on other projects, your brain continues to problem solve-in the background.
This method works because it gives us the opportunity to work on several projects without allowing them to compete for your attention.
3. Set Aside Distractions
Your smartphone, your inbox and the open tabs on your computer are all open invitations for distraction. Give yourself time each day when you silence your notifications, close your inbox and remove unnecessary tabs from your desktop.
If you want to focus, you can’t give anything else an opportunity to invade your mental space.
Emails can be particularly invasive because they often have an unnecessary sense of urgency associated with them. Some work cultures stress the importance of prompt responses to these messages, but we can’t treat every situation like an emergency.
Designate certain times in your day for checking and responding to emails to avoid compulsive checking.
4. Take Care of Yourself
We often blame electronics for pulling us from our work, but sometimes our physical body forces us into a state of serial tasking. If you’re hungry while you’re trying to work, your attention will flip between your hunger and your work until you take care of your physical needs.
Try to take all your bio-breaks before you sit down for an uninterrupted stint of work.
In addition, you’ll also want to be sure you’re attending to your health in a broader sense. Getting enough exercise, practicing mindfulness and incorporating regular breaks into your day will keep you from being tempted by distractions.
5. Make Technology Your Ally
Scientists are beginning to discover the detrimental effects of chronic serial tasking on our brains. Some companies are developing programs to curb this desire to multitask.
Adapt the Proper Multitasking Management Techniques
There is a very fine line between appropriate multitasking and one that impairs your productivity. These simple tips can help you steer clear of the harmful effects of overburdening yourself without proper productivity management.
1. Adjust Your Expectations
Be realistic with your goals. When you sit down and start working on something, you need to set a few goals and work towards them.
I say this from personal experience, in the beginning, getting a lot of projects might sound like you’re on your way to success. However, it rarely goes that way because being too busy taking on new projects, you end up burdening yourself with more than what you can handle. And in the end, nothing gets achieved. So when you are setting up a goal, be SMART. Make sure it’s Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound.
2. Choose Wisely
Now that you have decided to take your pick from the large number of projects you were being offered, it is time to make your choice on which one you can take on. This depends entirely on your capabilities and what you think you excel at the most.
Choose things you can manage easily and make sure you are able to see them through. And if there is something left that needs to be done, you can outsource them.
As you grow, so will the list of tasks that you would need to manage but taking on everything by yourself was never an option. As the author of The One Thing sums it up,
“Activity is often unrelated to productivity, and busyness rarely takes care of business.”
Just doing a lot on your own doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being productive. Rather than that, it would affect the efficiency of your work and might lead to an undesirable result for your business. This is why outsourcing the remainder of your tasks is always a good idea. Not only will you be getting your tasks done, but you will also be helping someone else out with making a living.
4. List Management
Keep active track of your tasks in a tangible way, where you can be reminded of everything that has been going on, or is about to go down.
At Lifehack, we use project management software Basecamp to keep track of all our tasks in Projects and To-Do Lists, where different tasks can be delegated to different team members and be tracked while they are being worked on.
Having a singular platform to manage all my business tasks alongside deadlines, revisions and priorities allows our team to get a sense of direction.
Now that we have a list going on for all of our tasks, why not create batches of similar tasks that would require similar resources to boost your team’s productivity?
Batching is a wonderful way of managing multiple tasks at the same time and it allows you to increase output and improve human resource productivity. When you get started with batching, take it slow, get into the feel, and find out what works the best for you.
6. Interruption Management
Interruptions are productivity’s worst enemy. If you go to the very roots of productivity, there lies paying attention to the task at hand and devoting your complete focus to accomplish the task. But with constant interruptions, you can say goodbye to getting anything done on time. This is especially in the case of growing businesses as their workload increases every passing day.
Avoid distractions as not only does this break down the tempo of the team but also takes their focus away from the task at hand. Similarly, set boundaries with your colleagues or people you work around by ensuring they know when you will be available and when you’d rather not be disturbed.
The most important part of making an amazing meal is its prep. Before you get started with the actual cooking, you would need to prepare for what is to come.
The same is the case with multitasking; to improve your multitasking skills, make sure you have the resources and tools prepared that are required to undertake the daily agenda. This will increase the efficiency of your work, and minimize the interruptions that may arise due to your search for something you need to get the job done.
8. Take A Break
When you are too caught up in your work, it’s very easy for it to take over your lives without you even realizing it. However, it is very important to take time off of work and just relax as it will open up your mind for inspiration and newfound motivation allowing you to clear your mind and refocus on the tasks at hand.
This is why it’s important to schedule downtime. Again, this is not common multitasking advice, but for those of us that want to hack life, we understand and appreciate a holistic approach to productivity.
A Practical Multitasking At Work Example
To make it easier to understand, let us look at a simple work case example about how to multitask. Imagine you run a marketing agency that has recently gotten recognition and is on the verge of expansion.
As the owner, you would now be responsible for a lot of new tasks and your workload will be multiplied. This requires you to employ effective multitasking, and to do that, identify the tasks that will impact your expansion the most and focus on them first. The remaining tasks can either be done based on a priority order or can be delegated or outsourced to a 3rd party service provider.
This is the perfect way to employ multitasking in a work environment as it does not affect productivity while systematically dealing with your responsibilities as well.
Bonus: How Do You Multitask Thinking?
Taking on multiple tasks at the same time might be counterproductive, however, thinking about multiple things at the same time is an entirely different story.
People in businesses have a number of tasks lined up that they need to address, and sometimes when performing one of them, thoughts about another one would pop in their head. Now, a multitasker would quickly switch tasks and move towards the one with whom he just had the breakthrough, however, I was no multitasker.
I would stick to my current task but would keep a journal with me, in which I would note down everything that just popped in my head. This would allow me to get tasks that take precedence done on time while getting resources prepared for the ones to come. This is why it is suggested to multitask thinking. Do not ignore the gems of information your mind provides you with, but do be patient with them.
Multitasking is not the key to productivity. It’s far better to schedule time to focus on each task than it is to try to do everything at once.
Make use of the methods outlined above and prepare to be more effective and less exhausted in the process.
If you want to learn more about how to focus, don’t miss these tips:
- How to Focus and Maximize Your Productivity (the Definitive Guide)
- So You Think You Can Multitask? Think Again.
- How to Not Get Distracted: 10 Practical Tips to Sharpen Your Focus
Featured photo credit: Javier Quesada via unsplash.com