It’s a trap! Despite what you’ve heard, multitasking will not make you more productive.
The term ‘multitasking’ was coined in the 1960s by IBM in reference to a computer being able to execute instructions simultaneously. It then came to apply to humans balancing multiple tasks. In the knowledge economy, the highest-value tasks are those that can’t be done by a computer. In those cases, multitasking is not the most productive way to get things done.
Why is multitasking naughty?
For small everyday tasks, multitasking isn’t an issue. When cooking dinner, you might have several things simmering at once. However, multitasking can become a problem when focused work is required. Small distractions, like answering a few emails or having a conversation about a separate project, might not take that long – but getting back on track does. Dr. Sophie Leroy describes this as Attention Residue, or the lingering thoughts of the distraction when trying to refocus on the work at hand.
Does it really take that long to regain focus on your previous work? Research conducted at the University of California, Irvine, found that it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back on track after a distraction. If it only took you five minutes to answer an email or discuss another project with your coworker, you’re still looking at almost half an hour to be at full productivity. And as we’ve all experienced, you usually have to multitask more than once per day.
Simple ways to increase productivity and improve your quality of work
There’s no need to fret. If you want to strengthen your productivity and ensure a high quality of work, here are a few ways to kick your multitasking habit:
Embrace monotasking – Avoid the pitfalls of multitasking and instead be highly focused on one thing at a time. Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls this the “flow state,” and it’s what you might call being in “the zone.” You’re completely immersed in your task, lose track of time, do your best work, and are the happiest with what you’ve produced. Organizations like Caveday have sprung up over the past few years specifically to help people monotask.
Identify your distractions – Once you know what is distracting you, remove it. If you have a noisy cube neighbor, try working in the conference room. If you have a home office and the dirty dishes are hard to ignore, just do them. Or, go to a nearby library or coffee shop to work instead.
Timeboxing – Set a specific amount of time for a task, then schedule it in advance on your calendar. If you’ve never tried this before, give yourself more time than you normally would need (roughly two to three times what you anticipate). You might be able to tackle that email in 15 minutes, but you also need to log in, find the email, write your reply, edit it, and then send it. Give yourself 45 minutes to start. If you get done in 35 minutes, use the extra time to get ahead on the next task or take a break. Once you get a sense of how long tasks really take, you can dial in your timeboxing.
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The GYLIO method – Get Your Life In Order (GYLIO) is a process to overcome the overwhelming amount of “life admin” work we often have. Tasks such as paying bills, washing dishes, doing laundry, tidying up, or meal prepping can all be part of GYLIO. The key is to start small. Bundle tasks into short to-do lists and tackle them from there. In one single hour, start laundry, load the dishes, and wipe down the kitchen counters. The more you implement this method, the better you’ll get, and you might be able to set aside an entire morning to address all your “life admin” work.
An app for that – While technology is often the source of our distractions, sometimes it can help. Check out apps like Freedom, Cold Turkey, or the One Tab Chrome extension. Or, create customized audio experiences with apps like Brain.fm or Endel. Just make sure that your work style is compatible with these apps and that they don’t become another distraction.
Set expectations – If you need time to focus and boost your productivity, let people know that you’ll be unavailable during a specific block of time. If they push back, show them how completing quality work will lead to better outcomes for them. For example, “We both agree this project is important, and I need to get this part of the project done for us both to move forward.”
No more naughty multitasking
The best performers know how to concentrate on one task at a time. Boost your productivity and raise your quality of work by embracing monotasking. By avoiding distractions and reducing Attention Residue, you can get more done with the time that you have. Make sure to pair the right tactic with the right tasks. Timeboxing and setting expectations might work at the office, while the GYLIO method could be better applied at home. Once you start seeing results, we think you’ll agree that multitasking is 2020’s naughty word.