Multitasking has become a normal part of modern life. We answer emails during meetings, watch television while on the treadmill, check social media in between tasks at the office, and we feel as though we’re being more efficient in the process. However, we’re not actually focussing on multiple things at once - what we’re actually doing is rapidly shifting our focus from one thing to the next. Our brains are simply not good at multitasking - in fact, only two per cent of the population is able to multitask effectively, and the rest of us are vastly overestimating how successful we are when we try to complete multiple tasks at the same time. Our brains tend to get overwhelmed when faced with too much information, and we become frazzled as our brain rapidly moves its attention from one thing to the next. Since the brain needs up to 15 minutes to refocus on a task after a distraction, we can actually reduce our productivity by up to 40 per cent by constantly switching tasks.
Juggling multiple tasks divides our attention, meaning the overall quality of our work suffers. You can answer emails while talking on the phone, but you won’t be able to focus sufficiently on either task, meaning you may leave out important information in that email, or you’ll send the message to your colleague that you’re not completely focussed on your phone conversation. Multitasking increases the likelihood of mistakes, increases the time it takes to complete a project by an average of 25 per cent, since you are constantly needing to re-shift your focus. When you multitask, you also burn through your energy and stress yourself out - studies show that chronic multitaskers have increased levels of cortisol, the hormone responsible for stress. Instead of trying to complete several tasks at once, we’re better off focussing on one task at a time, or single-tasking.
Aside from lowering your stress levels and allowing you to get more done, single-tasking forces you to work through complex problems, rather than distracting yourself with email or instant-messaging when you hit a snag in your work. With each task you complete, you’ll gain a sense of accomplishment, rather than a vague feeling that you’ve made progress on a few of your projects. You’ll also learn to distinguish between effective and ineffective uses of your time, cutting out distractions and unnecessary tasks. One study even found that consistent single-tasking can help ensure that your decision-making skills and strategic attention remain sharp as you go into your senior years.
If you’re a chronic multitasker, here are some tips for breaking the habit:
Get organised. A cluttered work environment can interfere with your ability to focus and process new information. Organise your workspace and make a plan to keep it neat - this will help you stay calm and focussed and get more done.
Go low(er) tech. Consider whether you need to power on that second monitor, or if it will only tempt you to keep your email open. Sign out of any instant messaging software, and stow your phone out of sight. Unless a piece of technology is essential to completing the task at hand, it will only serve as a distraction.
Learn the power of “no.” We’re certainly not advocating that you do less work overall, but sometimes the need for multitasking arises out of taking on too much. Be honest with yourself and your colleagues about what you can accomplish in a given workday, and work with your manager to determine what your top priorities should be. If there’s anything that can be dropped from your to-do list, cross it off and focus on the more important items.
Make a schedule. Instead of diving head-first into your workday, make a list of what you need to accomplish and estimate how long each task will take. Set aside time for phone-and-email-free working sessions. If this prospect seems daunting, start by scheduling 15-minute intervals and working up to longer periods of time.
Allow yourself some downtime. Take short breaks throughout the day for meditation or exercise, and use your vacation time rather than letting it accumulate. If you can’t get away from the office for an extended period of time, make the most of your weekends to help you feel recharged, relaxed, and ready to focus at the start of your workweek.
At first, you might feel frustrated because you feel you should be “doing more,” but after you spend some time single-tasking, you’ll see that you’ll accomplish much more in the end.