Countless amounts of research have proved multitasking to be ineffective. Nonetheless, we continue this behavior thinking it adds to our productivity. While my aim is to deter you from multitasking, I will additionally discuss ways to maintain productivity when handling multiple tasks that are thrown at you. I like to take a minimalists approach to productivity—do less to accomplish more. Whenever I’m working on something, I minimize distractions, prioritize in order of importance of long-term goals, maintain focus, and achieve flow. These strategies are simple, yet extremely effective.
Multitasking is a trait many look at as a positive characteristic. Employers especially love seeing this trait in a candidate—how quickly and efficiently they can tackle multiple things at once.
A real world example; driving while texting/talking on the phone/web surfing. We all know how good people are at doing this. The shocking part is that people still do this knowing they put their lives at risk.
Bottom line: Our brain is not programmed to complete two tasks at once, and when we make the attempt to do so, we do it ineffectively or inefficiently.
Chances are you’re reading this as you go back and forth between another activity. This is reducing your ability to consume the content in this post!
Hell, I even caught myself multitasking. I had to consciously catch myself and close all the open tabs so I can write this! I’m in the zone now, baby.
Is this your browser on a normal day?
“Unlike a computer, the brain isn’t structured as a parallel processor. It performs actions, even very simple actions, in a strict linear sequence. You must complete the first task, or part of that task, before moving on to the next. What we call multitasking is actually task switching.” Source: New York Times
A study at the University Of London showed that subjects who multitasked while performing cognitive tasks experienced significant decreases in their IQ. The IQ drops were similar to what you see in individuals who skip a night of sleep or who smoke marijuana.
Think twice before sending an email during your next meeting.
The challenge is rewiring our behavior. We have to allow ourselves to let go of distractions—let go of the five things we are doing at once. We enjoy reading Twitter, while texting back and forth with friends, while on a phone call. It makes us think we are being productive. Although doing these things separately will allow us to do them more quickly, and effectively.
Multitasking is the ultimate disruptor of flow, a concept originated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Essentially, flow is synonymous for being in the zone. When you achieve flow, you are fully immersed in your work. All other tasks, and distractions are irrelevant. You’ve encountered flow several times. You probably noticed how fast time flew by when you were done. Achieving flow is the pinnacle of productivity.
This is a great example of focus and flow:
“Where I was curious to study everything in sight, Bill would focus on one task at a time with total discipline. You could see it when he programmed. He would sit with a marker clenched in his mouth, tapping his feet and rocking; impervious to distraction.” – Paul Allen on Bill Gates
There are small actions you can take that will lead to profound results. You’ll have better focus, and subsequently, you will reach flow.
Cut out the fat with these multitasking strategies
1. Minimize distractions
We receive, sometimes even welcome distractions, disrupting our flow. In the middle of a task, we’ll take a phone call, check Facebook, or email. I’ve done this numerous times, and ruined my entire flow.
Exit your email client, turn off (yes, off) your phone for 25-30 minutes, escape your workspace and go to a place you won’t be disturbed.
A useful strategy is the Pomodoro Technique, 25 minutes of distraction-free work, followed by a five minute break.
The biggest cause of distractions in the workplace is email. In The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss suggests checking email only twice a day as part of your goal to live a more reasonable and productive life.
I’ve stopped what I was doing countless times when I received an urgent (but not important) email. My attention was diverted to that email and my productivity power hour was killed.
I know some of you are dropping your jaw at the thought of this. Especially those that have the delusional “inbox zero” goal (I’ll address this ridiculous “inbox zero” goal in another post). But checking your email twice a day might be legitimately unreasonable. I still challenge you to allot certain times when you check your email.
Just like Stephen Covey said in 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, “put first things first.”
Quadrant 2, “Important but Not Urgent” is where you want to live. Most people live in quadrants 3 and 4—don’t live there, you’ll always be working from behind.
Remember that you control the quadrant you operate in. No one else! Some of the most successful people in the world prioritize their activities this way, which is why they are very successful.
It will take brief planning on the front-end but you’ll ultimately be more productive.
• Set your priorities
• Act on your priorities
• Stay disciplined
3. Say “no.”
Whether it’s your phone, social media accounts, significant other, or manager, saying “no” will help you regain power over your time (and life).
Tip: Be tactful when dealing with your manager or spouse. An explanation to follow-up your “no” will reduce the chance of any pushback.
This can come in several forms. You can either delegate a task to a subordinate, or you can outsource it.
Not only is outsourcing inexpensive, the people assigned to you are competent as long as you vet out the lower-level players.
The important thing is to pass on any work that someone can do faster and/or better. Focus on what you do best.
Every time you decide to multitask, you are hindering your brain and your own productivity. Consciously catching yourself can be a difficult task (especially during the chaotic workday), but it will take a level of awareness.
Check in with yourself by setting a reminder. Subsequently, ask yourself these questions to keep yourself in check:
• What are you working on?
• Is it accomplishing the long-term goals you set yourself?
• How many things are you working on?
• Are you inundated with distractions?
You can now go back to social media. Share this post while you’re at it.