If you’ve read any kind of productivity advice over the last few years, you’re probably aware that, despite our propensity for it, multitasking limits the amount of work we can get done at any given time. In fact, recent studies have even shown that multitasking:
- Can decrease productivity by up to 40%.
- This loss of productivity costs businesses an estimated 450 million dollars annually.
- Multitasking can temporarily reduce IQ levels by 15 points.
But that doesn’t stop us… In a here-today-gone-tomorrow world where everything should have been done yesterday, we can’t help but answer emails during conference calls, surf the internet while we watch TV, or listen to music while we’re cooking dinner.
The truth is, multitasking makes us feel more productive. A state of constant busyness tricks our minds into believing we’re getting more done than we actually are. But this is exactly why multitasking is so dangerous.
In this article, we’ll explore proven ways to increase productivity by avoiding multitasking as well as the best techniques to handle it when it simply can’t be helped.
Why Multitasking Doesn’t Work
Multitasking is a term that was first used in the 1960’s by the technology industry to describe a new computer function. But years later, we humans have adopted the phrase to describe the act of managing multiple activities at the same time.
What’s interesting, though, is that the human brain is actually incapable of multitasking in the true sense of the word… Yes, we can do two things at the same time; read a book and listen to music for example, but research has shown that our minds can’t concentrate on 2 tasks simultaneously.
Instead, our minds rapidly switch focus from one thing to the other. So when you’re secretly catching up on email during team meetings, you’re technically not multitasking, but rather “task switching” between the screen and the voice of whoever is speaking.
The problem lies in the fact that every time you switch tasks, your brain has to refocus, using more glucose: the primary source of energy in the human body. And the more energy you expend switching from task to task, the slower those shifts become and the more prone to errors you are.
In a nutshell, task switching (what we refer to as multitasking), overexerts our brains, killing productivity and making it extremely hard, if not impossible, to do our best work.
With so much going on every day, staying productive is paramount. But if multitasking isn’t the answer, what is?
Start by monotasking; a newer term that refers to removing all distractions and putting all of one’s focus on a single task for an extended period of time. Basically, it’s the opposite of multitasking and it’s a skill that must be learned to begin producing at peak levels.
When you sit down to begin a project, put away your phone, log out of your email, eliminate whatever threatens to take your attention off of your work. How can you expect to do anything meaningful when your mind is constantly being bombarded by incoming calls and emails, meeting requests and social media updates?
Another key to increasing productivity is allowing your mind to rest. Consider planning out your free time in advance so your mind isn’t tempted to linger on the job. And when you’re not on the clock, allow yourself to indulge in the things that interest you; giving your brain a break and ensuring you’re ready to go the next morning.
Lastly, learn when you are most productive. For many people, this is first thing in the morning when the mind is fresh and distractions can be kept at a minimum. But everyone is different and you need to experiment to find your peak performance time. Once you find it, you need to protect it!
Too Much To Do?
I get it, sometimes there are too many things going on and distractions are unavoidable, metaphorical fires need to be put out, meetings can’t be rescheduled… Fortunately, when the need to multitask is forced upon you, there are a few things you can do to help.
Leading researchers have determined that, in certain scenarios, multitasking isn’t such a bad idea… Namely, when tasks align. This means that if each activity being performed uses a different part of the brain, multitasking can actually be beneficial. Exercising while watching TV is a good example. Are there any daily tasks that use different parts of the brain you can pair together to increase productivity?
Another way to preserve productivity when multitasking is unavoidable is to perform similar tasks at the same time. Consider planning all meetings for the same day, or tackling all your social media efforts for the week on Mondays. Even though your mind will still be switching focus from one aspect of the job to another, at least all your efforts will be in a similar wheelhouse giving you an advantage when multitasking is mandatory.
Finally, attempt to automate as many duties as possible. The best way to “multitask” is to have your computer fire off emails or tweets while you focus on something else entirely! There are many apps and technological solutions to automate different processes. I encourage you to look into a few of them.
All in all, while multitasking is enticing and seemingly unavoidable, it’s actually hurting your productivity more than just about anything else.
It takes discipline to focus on just one task at a time, clear your mind when you’re out of the office and study your work habits to determine your peak performance time. But I have no doubt that when you commit to doing these things, you will not only get more done, but your work will also be of a higher quality.
And when multitasking is unavoidable, using the above tips will help preserve your levels of productivity and not leave you stressed and frazzled at the end of the day.