Let’s see: you’ve got to prepare for the meeting this afternoon, there’s a report due, your email is backed up and there are several phone calls to return. If you multitask, you can get them all done fast. Oh, you’ve also got to run those numbers. Ready, set, go!
At home or at work, there’s always a lot on your plate. Wouldn’t you love to increase productivity? Multitasking — working on several projects at once — isn’t the answer, though. It actually does more harm than good.
One approach that can make a difference: focus on one thing at a time.
Multitasking: The Fallacy
You might think you can multitask because you can walk and talk at the same time. But those activities don’t take equal amounts of brainpower. Walking is so automatic it doesn’t get in the way of concentrating. Trying to do multiple complex jobs isn’t so easy.
Check out the research. A 2009 Stanford University study looked at managing multiple types of electronic information simultaneously: email, instant messaging, text messaging and checking websites. Some study participants did this regularly. When asked to do visual tests, participants who were multitaskers performed poorly. They:
- Were easily distracted
- Had memory problems
- Couldn’t switch efficiently between tasks
Multitasking wasn’t getting more work done, and the work that was completed wasn’t done well.
The brain isn’t good at handling multiple types of information. Instead of dealing with them all at once, it switches back and forth from task to task. It’s so fast you don’t notice it — but you’re not really doing many things at once. People who don’t — or can’t — multitask shouldn’t feel inadequate. It’s not really possible.
Doing just two things at the same time might be possible. Researchers at the Paris institute INSERM found that, when participants tried to do two visual tasks, each hemisphere of the brain successfully handled a different job. But throw a third assignment in, and it all fell apart. Participants were more forgetful and made more mistakes.
You can’t concentrate when trying to multitask. In order to remember something, it has to move from your short-term memory to your long-term memory. There’s no shortcut. But when you attempt to do more than one important thing at a time, your brain is overloaded. Not everything gets into your short-term memory. That means you’ll have recall problems later on.
Focusing: The Substitute
If you’re a die-hard multitasker, do your own research study. Try working differently to see if you can increase productivity. Ask other people to keep an eye on you and point out when you start to multitask. You may be so used to it that you don’t even notice.
- Do one job at a time. Don’t try to handle anything else while you’re focusing. Don’t answer the phone, check email, text, instant message, read or pick up a pen. Whenever you’re tempted to add another task, stop and refocus.
- Consider why you have so many assignments that you feel the need to multitask. Is it really the nature of your job, or do you just not want to disappoint people? If you can’t say “No,” trying saying “Later.”
- If electronic information and communication is a source of distraction — and a multitasking threat — set a schedule. Force yourself to check texts and emails only at specific times. Make a plan that’s appropriate for your responsibilities, and then stick to it.
- If you work in a setting with other people, distractions aren’t always under your control. When you’re trying to focus, limit whatever noises you can. Close your door. If your workspace is wall-less, put a “Please Do Not Disturb” sign on your cubicle. Silence your electronics and shut down visual alerts.
- Don’t let your mind wander. You know there are other tasks on your plate. Don’t start worrying about them or planning how to handle them when you’re working on something else. One thing at a time.
- If something really, really, really important does pop into your head while you’re concentrating, stop what you’re doing. Jot the idea down quickly and take care of it later. Then, get back to the task at hand.
- Focusing doesn’t mean you can’t take a break before you’ve finished the task. It means not being distracted during a particular period of time.
- It’s okay to put one job aside for a while and move to another. If you have several projects due about the same time, that may be necessary. Sometimes it’s good to focus on a new task for a while and get a fresh start later. That’s not multitasking. That’s good time management.
Don’t get taken in by the multitasking illusion! You’re good, but you’re not superhuman. To increase productivity, tackle one project at a time. Watch that to-do list shrink before your very eyes.
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