We live in a world where we are always connected. Virtual interactions dominate our time, with our phones buzzing, our email begging for attention, and our Facebook ripe with the latest updates from our friends.
In this environment, we have the possibility to communicate with more people than ever before. But it is also increasingly difficult to focus on one task at once.
In fact, being constantly busy is often seen as a positive thing; and not being able to multitask is seen as a negative. Why shouldn’t you send a quick email during that excessively long meeting, or read this article while getting some exercise on your stationary bike? It saves you time, right?
We’ve said before that multitasking takes a toll on your mind and performance. It has been proven that multitasking has high cognitive costs, that in fact our brains are not truly able to multitask.
Instead of simultaneously doing two or more tasks at once, when we say we’re multitasking we’re actually just rapidly switching between tasks. While it may give the appearance of efficiency, both to others and ourselves, it can in fact decrease our productivity by up to 40%. The more complex the task, the more time is lost.
Multitasking in the brain is managed by mental executive functions, which also control and manage other cognitive processes. They determine when, how, and in what order tasks are performed. According to researchers David Meyer, Jeffrey Evans and Joshua Rubinstein, there are two parts to this executive control process:
- Goal shifting, where you decide what task to work on
- and role activation, when you adjust from the rules of the old task to those of the new task.
Every time we switch tasks, our brain goes through the goal shifting and role activation stages. This ultimately means we lose time, focus and efficiency when we multitask excessively.
To become more productive, create better work, and simply maintain a quality of life where high stress levels and burnout are not a risk, we need to stop multitasking.
Here are four tips on how to:
Often, the reason we keep switching back and forth between three different things at once is because we haven’t evaluated which one is most important. When you have two things to do and you’ve given them the same importance, your brain will automatically gravitate to the simpler one. If you evaluate the importance of tasks beforehand, you will spend most of your energy on the task that’s the hardest.
What you should do: at the start of your day, or even better the night before, identify which tasks are the most important. Use Susan Weinschenk’s 80/20 rule: 20% of the work you do is responsible for 80% of your impact and effectiveness. Identify the 20% and concentrate on it.
What tools are available: Tools like the Kanban board help you organize your to-do list into backlog, current work, and future work. The Eisenhower Matrix helps you prioritize your tasks by assessing the importance and urgency of each task. Or, you can use a combination of both to help you keep organized.
Focus on one task
Don’t try to do everything at once: it simply doesn’t work. This is especially important if you’re under a lot of pressure. If you feel overwhelmed by the number of things on your plate, it is all the more crucial that you structure your time into clear blocks.
For an hour, or an afternoon, or even a whole day, focus on your most important task. Remove all distractions during that time. Then move on to the next one.
What tools are available: Try the Pomodoro technique. A time management process developed by Francesco Cirillo, it breaks down work into 25 minutes of productivity, followed by a 5 minute break. Adjust the time accordingly depending on the complexity of the task. This technique allows you to break down a big project into small, manageable chunks.
Start batch processing
Throughout the day, several small distractions resurface and interrupt what you’re really working on. Emails flood in, your phone rings, Facebook notifications ping...
What you should do is start batch processing. Decide on a certain time of day during which you check your emails, make your phone calls, and use social media sites.
For example, allocate half an hour for your emails in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. For the rest of the day, don’t touch your inbox.
Exercise the same type of discipline with your phone. Put it somewhere far away from you when you need to get something done - on another desk, in another room, even in another building. If you want to go all out, you can even schedule phone-free days. Let people know in advance that you won’t be reachable until tomorrow. Then, go to the office, or the library, or wherever you feel you’ll be the most productive, and simply leave your phone at home.
What tools are available: Apps like Self-Control are fantastic when you want to stay focused. I have days when, instead of writing up my latest blog post or working on a report, I fall into the slippery vortex of reflexive Facebook and email-checking. I bet you do too.
To prevent this cycle of procrastination, Self-Control blocks you from accessing certain websites. You can customize the list of websites you want to block and the time they’re blocked for. For example, you can deactivate Gmail, Twitter and Youtube for three hours.
The great thing about this app is that there is literally nothing you can do to turn it off once you’ve activated it. If you have a temporary moment of weakness, you’re out of luck. You can uninstall the app, restart your computer, open another browser… but until your three hours are up (or however long you’ve set it for), those websites are well and truly blocked.
Give yourself a break
“Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing” ~ Lao Tzu
Our fourth and final tip is to heed the wise words of Lao Tzu. You need to take a break, both physically and mentally. The longer you push yourself, the more likely it is that you’ll fall into a cycle where you’re busy but not effective.
Research on creativity shows that it’s the pre-frontal cortex that puts ideas together. It’s your brain’s creative centre, and can only work on one thing at a time. The more multitasking you do, the more you strain your pre-frontal cortex. This gives it less time to integrate information and hinders you from doing the insightful, creative work that you would otherwise be capable of.
So give your brain a break! Go for a walk, or a swim, or a run where all you have with you is your own thoughts. Turn off the internet for a portion of every day. Sit through a whole movie without once checking your smartphone.
When you’re no longer surrounded by the buzz of a hundred virtual networks, you all of a sudden have the peace and quiet needed to get your creative juices flowing.You have the time to reorganize your ideas, avoid or recover from burnout, and spend time doing things you love. After all, happy people are more productive.
How has multitasking impacted your productivity? Have you used any of these methods to become more focused? Share your experiences in the comment section below!