I know you don’t want to hear it. But multitasking isn’t effective. In this day and age of extreme busyness and “how much can we get done in a day” mentality, everyone is trying to do more — all at once.
"We claim to be multitasking, but in reality, we are just tackling several tasks in a far less effective way than we would if we simply focused on one at a time."
We seem to think that doing more gives us more value as human beings. That somehow the doing gives us meaning and purpose (as opposed to what is actually accomplished). And we have trouble distinguishing between what is truly important and what is not. Or perhaps the problem comes in making the choice of what is important — in other words: choosing the priority.
Notice I said priority, singular. In essence, the definition of the word priority means something of highest importance that comes before other things. When you truly think about it, it is impossible to have more than one. If you claim to have, for instance, ten priorities, then there is really no priority. They all become of equal importance and none of them is coming before the other.
"When we try to multitask, we are basically refusing to choose a priority in that moment."
We are forcing our brain to battle it out, and unfortunately, it is a losing battle.
The Brain’s Reality
So is it really totally impossible to multitask? After all, people claim to be doing it all the time. In fact, many of us pride ourselves on it. We look at younger generations — those growing up immersed in technology — as being experts in multitasking.
Well, it’s possible to do some simple tasks at the same time — like walking and talking. But when it comes to concentrated work, multitasking just isn’t scientifically possible. Instead, when we try to do two types of work at the same time that require our concentration, our brain switches back and forth from task to task.
Okay, so maybe we switch back and forth. But we’re still getting both things done right? Possibly. But the cost is often not worth it. Your brain is working much harder than it needs to. In fact, it’s overwhelmed with the constant switching of information.
The Cost of the Switch
Each time your brain switches from focus on one thing to focus on another, it takes time to recalibrate. Imagine it as refocusing a camera lens on two different subjects, back and forth. It takes a few seconds to change the focus each time, and those seconds add up. And when the tasks are really high-information tasks, like coding, for instance, it takes even longer to get back to full focus.
So you actually lose valuable time when you attempt to multitask. Not only that but your attention is divided. The switch puts you in an attention debt that takes a toll on your mental state. You are more likely to make mistakes and produce lower-quality work than if you were to simply do one thing at a time.
The Challenge of Focus
Despite the facts laid out in front of us, we continue to attempt multitasking. We churn out the work and check off the boxes like we are competing for a prize at the end of the day. And our lives are set up to encourage this.
Our smartphones are mini-computers that we carry with us everywhere. Sure, they are very convenient, but they are also constant distractions pulling at our attention. Many of us also compulsively check our email and text messages. The pace of communication today is such that we feel like we can’t afford not to. Some workplaces are set up in such a way that we are expected to respond immediately to any messages sent. Unfortunately, this takes a toll on our focus, too.
Narrowing Down Your Priorities
Streamlining your priorities is a choice. And it may well be a tough one. But if you want to produce higher-quality work and reduce the stress on your brain, it’s worth it. Perhaps it’s too much to expect you to choose one single priority. But it starts with narrowing down your total priorities. And then simply choosing ONE priority for a specific chunk of time. One single thing to focus on.
So, take a step back and zoom out to the bigger picture of your life or your job. What is truly important to you or to your role? You may want to have a ranking system so you place areas of life or goals in order of importance. When you put some thought into it and make these choices “ahead of time,” it allows you to stay true to your priorities in the heat of the moment. When something comes up in your day and you have to choose what gets your full attention, you have already decided on your priorities.
Weed Out the Multitasking
Start eliminating the multitasking moments and improving your focus and work quality by choosing one time-slot per day where you will focus on one single task. Just start with one. Don’t make it too big — 30-45 minutes is enough to start. (Your brain needs breaks, too.) As you discover the value in doing this, you’ll likely want to add more chunks of focused time.
As you work on weeding out the multitasking, think of consolidating other things you do during a given day. Because another thing that weakens our focus is role-switching. So when we switch from making phone calls (which is one type of skill) to writing a brief (which is another skill) to filling out a form (which is another), it also tires our brains unnecessarily. Instead, look at how you can group similar types of tasks together.
This means email, too.
"Instead of keeping your browser open all day and responding as they come in, give yourself set times to handle email."
If that makes you nervous (“What if I don’t respond to someone right away?!”), then perhaps include in your email signature a line that says, “I check email at 10 a.m., 1 p.m., and 4 p.m.” This gives them an indication of when they can expect a response. Checking email constantly might be a tough habit to break, but remember it is a habit that we’ve built up. Don’t forget there was a time when there was no email and no smartphones. And everyone survived.
We have incorporated distractions into our lives, and they are disguised as a means to be “connected” and “more productive.” Be aware of what is truly helping you be productive and what is actually keeping you from the goals you really care about.
Systems to Try
Choosing priorities and improving focus have been issues for many people for a very long time. So know you are not alone in the struggle. Luckily, those before you have also created systems and processes to help simplify things.
If you are in the market for a more structured approach to deciding on priorities and focusing, perhaps try David Allen’s Getting Things Done system to give you some fresh clarity. Or try the Pomodoro technique to give you a framework for focused work. The Ivy Lee Method helps you to minimize your daily priorities, and the Eisenhower Matrix helps you determine what is truly important vs. urgent.
There are many systems and processes to choose from, all with slightly different approaches for improving your productivity. None are right or wrong — it’s all about what will work for you. I suggest you choose one to try and give it a few weeks to see whether it helps you or not. Ultimately, the change will need to come from within you and your own desire to produce higher quality work with less stress. And remember that the way we work is habit, and we have the power to transform our habits for the better. But it doesn’t happen overnight. So matter how you choose to approach it, remember to give it time and stay committed.
The Benefits of Single-Tasking and Fewer Priorities
There is a state that is possible to reach only when your focus is pure and your attention is on a single task. That is the state of Flow (discussed in detail by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book of the same name). Creative thinking is at a maximum and you are completely in the zone. The quality of work is usually very high. And not only that, but the feeling you get when you are able to work in this state is truly wonderful.
Accomplishment. Pride. Fulfillment.
Fewer priorities means you can give your all to your goals. It means you waste less time and undoubtedly feel more energetic. It equals lower levels of stress and reduced anxiety. With the facts laid out before you, it seems ridiculous to keep attempting the false process which is multitasking! Give single-tasking a try and experience the wealth of benefits to your workflow and quality.