Multitasking

Can It Help You Get More Done?

Is multitasking costing you time?

© iStockphoto/juliedeleseleuc

You're on the phone with a supplier, while quietly typing up notes about your previous phone call. As soon as you hang up, a colleague sends you an instant message, which you read over while dialing your manager's extension number. Then, during your phone conversation with her, you start updating your week's to-do-list.

To boost our productivity, many of us multitask like this to some degree. And, in a world where the pace of life is often frantic, people who can multitask are typically seen as efficient and effective. After all, don't we get more done when we do more than one thing at a time?

Actually, multitasking doesn't make us as productive as we think. What's more, it's likely that the quality of our work is worse when we multitask. In fact, it could actually be costing us time instead of creating it.

In this article we'll examine the issues associated with multitasking, and look at why we shouldn't do it. We'll also look at some suggestions to help you get out of the multitasking habit.

Multitasking and the Myth of Productivity

Many people have studied multitasking over the last decade, and most of them have come to the same conclusion: Multitasking doesn't make us more productive!

Several studies have found that multitasking can actually result in us wasting around 20-40 percent of our time, depending on what we're trying to do.

The simple reason that multitasking doesn't work is because we can't actually focus on more than one task at a time. But we think we can – so we multitask to try and get more done.

Imagine trying to talk to someone and write an email at the same time. Both of these tasks involve communication. You can't speak to someone and write a really clear and focused email at the same time. The tasks are too conflicting – your mind gets overloaded as you try to switch between the two tasks.

Now think about listening to someone as you try to write an email. These two tasks are a bit easier to do together because they involve different skills. But your attention to the person will fade in and out as you're writing. You simply can't fully focus on both things at once.

The biggest problem with multitasking is that it can lower the quality of our work – we try to do two things or more things at once, and the result is that we do everything less well than if we focused properly on each task in turn.

When we switch tasks, our minds must reorient to cope with the new information. If we do this rapidly, like when we're multitasking, we simply can't devote our full concentration and focus to every switch. So the quality of our work suffers. The more complex or technical the tasks we're switching between, the bigger the drop in quality is likely to be. For instance, it would be almost impossible to write a good-quality presentation while having an emotionally charged conversation with a co-worker!

Another major downside to multitasking is the effect it has on our stress levels. Dealing with multiple things at once makes us feel overwhelmed, drained and frazzled.

On the other hand, think of how satisfied you feel when you devote your full attention to one task. You're able to focus, and you'll probably finish it feeling as if you've not only completed something, but done it well. This is called being in flow  , and it's a skill that can be developed with some practice.

Spotting the Multitasking Tendency

It can be hard to identify when you're multitasking. But there are a few key indicators you can look for:

  • If you have several pages or tabs open on your computer, then you're probably multitasking. The same goes for your desk – if you have several file folders or papers out that you're working on, you might well be multitasking.
  • Multitasking is more likely when you're working on a project or task you're not excited about. For instance, creating a spreadsheet analysis might be an unwelcome task, so you might frequently check your email or do some research on a new assignment in order to lessen the pain of the current task.
  • Frequent interruptions can also cause you to multitask. For instance, you might be writing your department's budget when a colleague comes into your office with a question for you. You then carry on trying to tinker with the budget as you answer their question.

How to Stop Multitasking

If we want to improve the quality of our work, lower our stress levels, and become more efficient, then we need get out of the multitasking habit. Below are some suggestions to help you cut back on multitasking:

  • Plan your day in blocks. Set specific times for returning calls, answering emails, and doing research.
  • Manage your interruptions  . Keep a log showing who interrupts you the most, and how urgent the requests are. Once you've compiled a week's worth of interruptions, politely but assertively   approach your colleagues with a view to managing and reducing their interruptions.
  • Learn how to improve your concentration   so you can focus properly on one task at a time. Doing this may feel awkward at first if you frequently multitask. But you'll be surprised at how much you get done just by concentrating on one thing at a time.
  • Every time you go to check your email or take a call when you're actually supposed to be doing something else, take a deep breath and resist the urge. Focus your attention back to what you're supposed to be doing.
  • If you get an audible or visual alert when emails come in, turn it off. This can help you avoid the temptation to check your inbox whenever you get new mail.
  • Whenever you find yourself multitasking, stop. Take five minutes to sit quietly at your desk with your eyes closed. Even short breaks like this can refocus your mind, lower your stress levels, and improve your concentration. Plus it can give your brain a welcome break during a hectic day.
  • There will be times when something urgent comes up and you can't avoid interruptions. But instead of trying to multitask through these, stop and make a note of where you left your current task. Record any thoughts you had about how to move forward. Then deal with the immediate problem, before going back to what you were doing. This way you'll be able to handle both tasks well, and you'll leave yourself with some clues to help you restart the original task more quickly.
  • If you find your mind wandering when you should be focusing on something else, you need to guide your thoughts back to what you are doing by putting yourself in the moment. For example, you might be sitting in an important team meeting, but thinking about a speech you'll be giving soon. Tell yourself, "I am in this meeting, and need to focus on what I'm learning here." Often, acknowledging the moment can help keep you focused.

Tip:

If you'd like to learn more about the drawbacks of multitasking, and how to get better at managing your time, check out our Expert Interview with Dave Crenshaw, The Myth of Multitasking.

Key Points

Many of us think that multitasking is the best way to get through the demands of our working day. This is a myth! The reality is that multitasking lowers the quality of our work, reduces our ability to focus, and can actually cost us time.

It's important to stop multitasking as soon as you realize you're doing it. Schedule your day into blocks of time, try to minimize and manage interruptions, and work on improving your concentration.

Controlling your tendency to multitask could have surprising benefits. You probably find that you get more done, feel less stress, and have more energy at the end of the day.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Click here for more, subscribe to our free newsletter, or become a member for just $1.

Add this article to My Learning Plan

Comments (8)
  • James wrote Over a month ago
    Hi All

    Just checking if you're aware of http://www.macfreedom.com (moderator approved link) - this allows you to disable your Internet connection for a pre-defined period of time, and it's available for Windows as well as Mac.

    This may go some way towards what you want, Zuni!

    James
  • opgo wrote Over a month ago
    Thanks Midgie,

    I appreciate the welcome
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Opgo,
    Welcome to the Forums, and great to jump in with your thoughts. Hmm ... a software that blocks other distractions ... wouldn't that be distracting in itself?!? All we need now is something to remind us to get back to work and get back focused on what we are doing when we wander off task!

    I wonder why we find it so hard to shut down the computer, turn off certain programs like mail and instant messaging / chat? Life as we know it won't stop if we do!

    As I am just about to leave for a week's holiday on Saturday, the thought of not turning on my blackberry to get any messages makes me twitchy. However, as Yolande suggested, not having reception (or not turning on the phone to start with!) might help me feel like I really am on holiday!! Hmm ... food for thought!

    Opgo, if there is anything I can help you with or resources you are trying to find, just let me know and I'll see what I can do to help. Hope to see more of you around the Forums with your thoughts and your questions.

    Midgie
  • opgo wrote Over a month ago
    I saw in passing a couple of word processing programs (they claimed to be creative writing packages) that had as a key feature the ability to block all other distractions, pop ups, alerts etc.

    Monotasking packages for the creative types.

    Perhaps there is a market space opening for a blocking app for general use. Shutting down or unplugging is, of course out of the question....
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi all

    Oooh!! I like the idea of the "real work movement" Zuni! Sometimes I feel so 'overloaded" that I just shut down everything - from the radio and tv to my laptop and cell phone - just to enjoy a bit of quietness.
    A while ago I was on holiday, but we had cell phone reception everywhere, so guess who was working all the time. During the last three days of our holiday we did not have reception...and there - for the first time during that entire holiday, did I feel like I was on holiday. I learnt a lesson there.

    Kind regards
    Yolandé
  • zuni wrote Over a month ago
    May, if you find that device, let all of us know. We will create a viral marketing campaign to espouse its benefits. We have the simple life movement and the real food movement. How about a real work movement?

    Zuni

  • mayc wrote Over a month ago
    how true zuni!!! Even though it is illegal where I live, I still see professionals texting as they drive with a hands free bluetooth in their ear and watching the latest corporate video on their ipad. It's getting insane and I agree, it's leading to attention deficit, inefficient work habits, and all out burnout. It's crazy and it keeps getting worse instead of better since each new technology that is introduced seems to encourage more and more of this behavior. What we need is a cool little device that automatically shuts all the other ones off for at least an hour and lets us get some real work done.

    May
  • zuni wrote Over a month ago
    Hi all,

    Multitasking is ubiquitous. I work in a telcom where the more gadgets you have, the cooler you are. I'm sure you've heard the terms Gadget Girl and Gadget Boy. In our organizational culture, if you aren't sporting the latest and greatest or constantly checking your BB, you are out of touch; gadgets are status symbols.

    What I find disturbing is the fact that we are encouraged to multitask; it is an accepted practice in our culture. In virtual learning events or on conference calls, multitasking throughout is considered a badge of honor, i.e., I am so busy, I need to do two to three things at once. Perhaps if we stopped confusing "activity" with effectiveness, we may lead saner lives and prevent the onset of adult ADHD.

    Zuni

Where to go from here:

Join the Mind Tools Club

Click to join Mind Tools
Printer-friendly version
Return to the top of the page

Create a Login to Save Your Learning Plan

This ensures that you don’t lose your plan.


Connect with…

Or create a Mind Tools login. Existing user? Log in here.
Log in with your existing Mind Tools details
Lost Username or Password
You are now logged in…

Lost username or password?

Please enter your username or email address and we'll send you a reminder.

Thank You!

Your log in details have been sent to the email account you registered with. Please check your email to reset your login details.

Create a Mind Tools Login
Your plan has been created.

While you're here, subscribe to our FREE newsletter?

Learn a new career skill every week, and get our Personal Development Plan workbook (worth $19.99) when you subscribe.


Thank You!

Please check your Inbox, and click on the link in the email from us. We can then send you the newsletter.