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.

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Comments (17)
  • Yolande wrote This week
    Sometimes we don't have much of a choice, Shanay. However, if you can focus on one thing at a time and give it all your attention, you may feel more efficient.

    Yolandé
    Mind Tools Team
  • Shanay wrote This week
    Having a teenage son and a six year old daughter I find myself multitasking and this article is very inlightening
  • Donald wrote This month
    HAVING 6 KIDS I AM ALWAYS MULTI-TASKING, THIS ARTICLE WAS VERY INLIGHTENING
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Arunprem,
    Glad the article helped both you and your team!

    Midgie
    Mind Tools Team
  • arunprem wrote Over a month ago
    Excellent article, that helped improve me and my team..!
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Pinelopi,
    It's great to hear that you enjoyed the article, that you are sharing it in your blog! Thanks for sharing!

    I do believe there is great value for businesses to offer yoga or meditation classes in the workplace, and to encourage people to go and they would come back to their desks more grounded, centered and focused. So, ready to tackle what's next to do!

    Good luck with things and let us know if you want to bounce around any ideas.

    Midgie
    Mind Tools Team
  • pinelopi wrote Over a month ago
    Hello,
    Thaks so much for the article. I ve been checking how many tabs i have open at once on my computer since i read it... and it s done wonders to my peace of mind!
    I stumbled on your article while writing my blog "Why offer yoga in your business and organization" and i linked to it so that my readers can have a better grasp on the notion of multitasking. Thank you so much!
    You can see the article here: http://www.englishyogaberlin.com/offer-yoga-business-organisation/
    Pinelopi
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Jacob,
    Thanks for your thoughts. I agree that ideally the person's preferred style (long or short-term focus) is matched to the type of job they do.

    Yet, sometimes we find ourselves with tasks/projects that require a different focus. Then, strategies need to be put in place to deal with that. For example, if someone needs to complete a report and they need to focus, perhaps they can move to a quiet conference room or put a 'do not disturb' sign on their door. They key then is letting others know what that means and to help them respect your time away to concentrate!
  • Jacob wrote Over a month ago
    As I understand multitasking is the ability to do several short tasks one after the other. Some people may confuse it as the ability to do several tasks simultaneously. It is true that our mind can concentrate only on one thing at a time, simultaneous focus on several things is not possible. Hoewver, there are situations in life and work where we may have to shift our attention to different areas at short notice. People with long-term focus may feel overwhelmed and drained at such situations. Only people with short-term focus can change focus without stress.

    There are jobs requiring long-term and short-term focus. Ofcourse, if you are an analyst you you don't want to be disturbed; in fact, an analyst requires long-term focus without disturbance. On the other hand imagine a senior administrator with long-term focus and who doesn't want to be disturbed by his staff because that will diminsh his work efficiency! Possibly his staff will have to wait days to get an appointment to meet him! An administrator needs short-term focus so tht he can shift his focus his attention to the demands of the moments to tackle the situation effectively. In an organisation we need peole with long-term as well as short-term focus. It's a question of matching the job requirements with people skills.
  • 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
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