Multitasking has become a standard “skill” written on every candidate’s resume. Who doesn’t want an employee who can bounce around from task to task, especially when things get chaotic? But multitasking has always been a myth that decreases productivity.
The Myth of Multitasking
Multitasking is a combination of the following:
- Performing two or more tasks simultaneously.
- Switching back and forth from one thing to another.
- Performing many tasks in rapid succession.
There is an unsurmountable number of things that compete for your attention. It’s easy to think that you can split yourself into 300 pieces and give a bit to everyone and everything. If you do that, you are not providing your best self — your most genuine potential. Instead, you offer a watered-down version of who you are, and then beat yourself up when things don’t get done the way you envisioned.
In the past, many people believed that multitasking was the right way to increase productivity. After all, if you’re working on several different tasks at once, you’re bound to accomplish more, right?
Recent research has demonstrated that switching from one task to the next takes a severe toll on productivity. Multitaskers have more trouble tuning out distractions than people who focus on one task at a time.
The Switching Cost
Multitasking has become another distraction that removes focus from the core task, the thing you are doing at the moment, and results in what is known as the “Switching Cost.”
Your brain has specific controls for multitasking, known as the executive functions. Ultimately, these controls dictate how a task performs. According to researchers Meyer, Evans, and Rubinstein, there are two stages to the executive control process.
Goal Shifting — when you decide to do one thing over another thing
Goal shifting occurs when you are performing a task and suddenly remember something else that you need to accomplish. You could be inputting employee data into a spreadsheet and quickly recall that you have to approve a vacation request. Many times, we think we should do the new task instead, or we will forget it, but this will reduce productivity. You should complete one job at a time. Write down every task you need to accomplish on a checklist. Anything that comes into your mind while performing a task write it on your list so you can go back to it.
Role Activation — when you change from the rules of the first task to rules for the new task
Once you decide to do something else, your brain is switching between a set of rules that causes a delay. For example, let’s say that you are writing a professional e-mail to a vendor. You have a professional style of communication that your brain is adhering to. All of a sudden, you receive a notification on your calendar that it is your best friend’s birthday. You decide to stop writing the e-mail and call her at that moment. The role activation has now changed the rules of communication from the vendor to your best friend. You speak more casually with your friend than you do a vendor. When you get back to writing that professional e-mail, you must switch role activation again. It often seems seamless when we change this way, but we are losing time due to this switching.
Switching from task to task takes longer to complete each task, deduces quality, and creates unnecessary personal stress.
According to Stanford researcher, Clifford Nass, those who are considered heavy multitaskers performed worse at sorting out relevant and irrelevant information during a study. What’s more troubling is that those individuals had decreased performance and efficiency when focusing on just one task, a result of consistent “multitasking.”
“We studied people who were chronic multitaskers, and even when we did not ask them to do anything close to the level of multitasking they were doing, their cognitive processes were impaired. So basically, they are worse at most of the kinds of thinking not only required for multitasking but what we generally think of as involving deep thought.” — Clifford Nass
According to Nass, our brains deteriorate the more we attempt to multitask. The constant task switching short-circuits our ability for profound thinking, which affects significant areas of our lives, particularly our decision-making ability.
Multitasking is not the only culprit to the detriment of our mental health and loss of productivity. Allowing distractions into your workflow is a severe problem.
Take driving for one example. If we are not paying attention to the details of what is going on within the core task (driving a car) then something could distract us (changing the Spotify playlist on your phone), and we may not see the street light turn red, which could result in a deadly car accident (The Switching Cost). This is why many states have enacted “Distraction-Free” laws while driving.
We don’t see what we are not paying attention too. Our productivity must be limited by distractions that rob us of our time, energy, and focus. Watch this campaign below and see where your attention resides.
There is good news. Our brains can build more neurons and create new neural pathways. We can alter deeply ingrained habits through self-awareness. We can change; it’s not too late.
Here are some solutions that you could implement today to increase productivity and reduce distractions.
The 20-minute rule
When you choose to focus on a task, always give yourself a full, uninterrupted 20 minutes to work on it. Close your office door, silence your phone, and tell your team that you are unavailable for this period.
This rule helps you hyper-focus on a single task resulting in more creativity, deeper thinking, and better results. Feel free to run back to your phone afterward, but you will notice that when you commit to this practice, you start to crave this type of distraction-free environment.
Get yourself a journal, a notepad, or a piece of paper that holds your thoughts. I prefer something digital so that I can have access to it on every device. There are some great note-taking Apps out there, such as EverNote, Bear, and Memento. Even the native Notes app on your phone will do. Write a priority list for the day and highlight your Anchor Task- the one non-negotiable thing you will get done for the day. Add to this list throughout the day and remember to focus on no more than two things at the same time.
Turn off Notifications
This step is life-changing. Your phone is your biggest distraction at work. It hosts your e-mails, your messages, your calendar, your Apps, your news media, and pretty much your life. Each of those comes with a notification, a little note that will pop up and tell you about your upcoming appointments, your inbounding e-mails, and every form of communication you have. Odds are, you do not need all of those notifications turned on.
If you don’t know how to turn them off, here are the tutorials — IPHONE ANDROID WINDOWS
Train Your Brain
Training your brain is one of the best ways to stay focused and increase cognitive ability. You can do this through meditation, exercise, and reading. These stimulate the brain like nothing else. Incorporate them into your daily routine. I used to run on the treadmill and read a book! Crazy, right? But it was such an energy boost for my brain. I passed two difficult certification exams by studying this way.
Go to Lumosity.com and create a free profile. They offer you brain exercises that target specific areas such as focus and distraction avoidance.
The StoryTether – Stop Multitasking
Stopping your craving to multitask does not mean that you stop working hard, it means to start working more efficiently. Pay more attention to the details of your work, completing one task at a time in 20-minute intervals. Flex your cognitive muscle, and you will become better at what you do!