I was going about my business doing my daily surveys yesterday when I came across the following two questions:
“Do you multitask?”
Yes, of course, I thought. Doesn’t everyone? We live in a world where if you’re not multitasking, you’re not busy enough. And if you’re an information worker, you probably need to multitask to complete the amount of work assigned to you on any given day.
“Are you good at multitasking?”
This question gave me pause. My gut instinct said “yes,” but when I thought more about it, is anyone good at multitasking?
Multitasking, which is defined as dealing with one or more tasks at the same time, by its very nature, indicates splitting your attention. On the contrary, when you consider something like focus or concentration, you generally think of this as placing effort on a single, most important task.
Self-reflection on my multitasking ways
I began to reflect on times when I’ve felt accomplished and productive. Those rare days where you answer “How was your day?” with “Great! I got so much done!”. As I thought back on projects completed, blog posts written, and books read, they all shared one thing in common.
That’s all I was doing.
I was centered, focused, and all attention was on the task at hand and nothing else. I was not simultaneously talking on the phone, checking email, scanning Upwork for jobs, and the like, but was absorbed in the flow-like state that coincides with real, productive work completed.
This revelation led me to a simple conclusion. The best way for me to increase productivity is to STOP MULTITASKING.
A brief history of multitasking
According to Wikipedia, the word “multitask” first appeared in 1965 in a technical paper by IBM to describe computer capabilities. I would venture to say that whoever first wrote that word in 1965 had no idea what multitasking would come to mean in 2020.
Since this time, there have been numerous studies that have attempted to gauge the human ability to multitask. Most of them, rather unsurprisingly, found that it was challenging for people to multitask. Multitasking often resulted in lower grades, took longer to accomplish tasks, and created a kind of information processing bottleneck.
There are some instances of multitasking that we’ve come to take for granted. Talking on the phone while driving a car is a great example. As simple as this seems, since we do it all the time, it is a form of multitasking as you require your brain to perform two distinct tasks at the same time. Since we’re generally not as pressed for results in our personal lives, multitasking often filters in unnoticed. Where it starts to hurt is in the workplace.
Workers can find themselves context-switching and multitasking all day long. Some make it look easy to glide from answering an email to logging the latest meeting notes while handling a client phone call. But according to the American Psychological Association, shifting between tasks can cost someone as much as 40% of productive time. For businesses, this can mean losses in the thousands to tens of thousands of dollars per employee.
So what can we do about it?
Alternatives to multitasking
The secret to avoiding multitasking is to be mindful of where you place your focus. When you feel your attention starts to diverge, do your best to pull it back together. Not only is this going to be a practice in mindfulness, but also task management.
Suppress alerts for designated times if you can
Whether it’s email, Slack, or some other productivity tool, many workplaces are creating a forced multitasking environment by demanding exceedingly fast response times from employees. See if you can work with a co-worker or manager to set up dedicated work periods where you will not be responsible for responding within minutes to every notification that comes in. Merely having one to two hours per day distraction-free can make a world of difference for allowing you to focus and complete independent tasks.
Create clusters of like tasks
Group similar tasks to perform in quick succession in designated time slots. For example, if you have several data entry jobs to perform in a single software application, schedule an hour or two to do all of them. Not only will this eliminate the need to log back into the app and context-switch, but it allows your mind to enter into more of a flow state.
Prioritize and remember to keep the main thing the main thing
Each day during my morning routine, I write down the one thing I want to accomplish today. Throughout the day, I keep this in mind and make sure that no matter what else happens, I complete this one task. This makes me feel a sense of accomplishment but also helps me to de-emphasize other, less meaningful tasks that might have been fighting for my attention.
I’ve realized that I’m not someone who should be multitasking, and I don’t think I’m alone. Some studies have indicated that only 2% of the population can truly multitask. Having the self-awareness to recognize when and how you do your best work can not only help boost your company’s bottom line but also help you to feel more in control of your focus throughout the day. Now that’s something worth a pat on the back and a clap, just not at the same time.