“You can do two things at once, but you can’t focus effectively on two things at once.”
– Gary Keller
Many people think that multitasking is some Olympic sport that looks great on their resume. In reality, it could be harming your productivity.
What do you do when you’re answering emails and suddenly the phone rings? Do you answer it and try to speak to the person while you finish your emails? Then the doorbell chimes. Do you go to the door while still on the phone? Now you have some decisions to make.
If you were to double check your emails before you sent them, would there be any mistakes? How long did it actually take you to write that email since you took the phone call?
We live in a world where multitasking is what you do. It just comes naturally. But is it the most efficient use of our time?
The Multitasking Myth
A number of states have already made it illegal to talk on your cell phone and drive at the same time. Some states won’t even allow you to drive and eat at the same time. This is based on the fact that if your focus is divided, accidents are more likely to happen.
That makes sense right? So why do many people still do it?
Studies have also shown that when people are forced to change gears in the middle of a task, valuable time is lost. The more complex the task, the more time is lost. The lost time is the time that’s usually spent by the frontal lobe of your brain making decisions and establishing priorities. When you multitask, rather than getting a lot more accomplished, you’ll find that the quality of your work diminishes significantly while important tasks actually take longer.
Think about this: When you were in school, would you ever work on a huge research paper and a science project at the same time? Well, no – it doesn’t make sense to do that, right? Switching back and forth between those two would just extend the time it took to do them and the quality of your paper and project would probably not be very good. The better thing to do would be to work on one at a time with a significant break in between.
Here’s a more simple one that we don’t realize. If you work from home, do you have the TV on “in the background” while you are working on the computer? Chances are, the TV is not just on for background noise and there is something on it you want to see. What ends up happening is that you stop what you’re doing every few minutes to see what’s happening in the plot.
I know, sometimes it’s just more relaxing to do that – but what ends up happening is you never get completely in your working “zone” and it takes 2 to 3 times longer to finish your work.
If you are one of the people that do this, I want you to pay attention next time to how long it takes you to finish your work. I’m guessing you’ll still be working on the same thing after the show is over.
Then, I want you to try a similar task without the TV (or your chosen distraction) and see how well you work and how long it takes you. I’m willing to bet you’ll be faster and more efficient when you only have one thing to focus on.
This in turn is what makes us feel more productive. Not that we did a million things at once, but that we did a number of things throughout the day and were good at them.
Key Takeaway: Multitasking is actually harming your productivity, not helping it. Your brain has to work harder to get things done efficiently.
Single-Tasking: the Alternative
Just for argument’s sake, try spending one day where all you do is focus all your energy on one task at a time. You may be surprised to discover that you’re making significantly more progress than usual as you tackle one job at a time without interruption.
Without interruption? “That’s easier said than done.” True, but do the best you can. If you know when (or how) most of your interruptions happen, then try to get ahead of them or don’t work on tasks that need more focus during those times. If your interruptions are phone or email, then turn on your “Do not disturb” so you won’t get those notifications during your work time.
Knowing that your kids come home from school everyday between 2pm – 3pm, you don’t want to schedule that block as creative writing time. Work on something that won’t take much attention, or something you’re OK with pausing as they greet you during that hour. Maybe take that time to lightly clean or do laundry. Maybe you can plan to prep dinner and get it started.
You won’t figure this out the first time out of the gate. Try a few different methods to see what works. Journal the things you do and how focused you feel you need to be in order to complete them.
Create a to-do list
Have categories on the list for home, work, etc. Write the items on your list in order of priority. Organizing your tasks will help you see everything you have to do and give you a definite place to start.
Keep a notebook handy
If ideas for another task come while you’re working on something else, jot them down quickly so you can continue concentrating on your current project. You won’t have to worry about forgetting your ideas and thoughts later, and you won’t be tempted to switch tasks entirely.
Tune out distractions
If possible, turn off your phone or shut down your computer if they’re diverting you away from your current task. If you feel the urge to check your email, simply take a deep breath and continue working. Don’t worry; your email’s not going anywhere! It will still be there in the same place when you finish what you’re doing.
Plan your day in blocks of time
Depending on the number of tasks you have to do, this can be in hour-long blocks, or just 20 minutes. Even if I have longer blocks, I like to work them in Pomodoros. Make sure you leave some blocks open for unexpected situations that may arise.
Every now and then, take inventory
When you’ve completed a task successfully and have a few minutes to spare, use that time to check your inbox for any new situations that may have come up. You can then re-prioritize your to-do list if necessary.
I’m gonna be real with you. Single-tasking is going to be strange at first and might take some time to get used to, especially if you’re used to working on multiple projects at one time. However, focusing your efforts on a single task will help you think more clearly and determine what steps must be completed.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of ideas, but these tips will help you get started. Multitasking can be very stressful. Make your life a little less chaotic and just work on the things that you need to do in any given moment. Keep tweaking your system until you have something that works wonderfully for you. Remember everyone is different!
Give me your tips to staying focused and not getting distracted by every little thing that comes your way, in the comments.