Everyone has that one friend: the parent or grandparent who juggles looking after little ones whilst managing their side business online, Skyping with a friend on the other side of the world and working in the garden at the same time. In other words, the friend who’s beyond busy all the time.
These days, the ability to multitask is considered a virtue. Multitasking is something people put on their resumes. Few among us are not guilty of the occasional humblebrag about how many things they’re doing at once. It’s something that everyday people strive for: fitting more into every day by literally doing everything at once. There’s just one problem with this. By trying to do more all at once, we might actually be achieving less in the long run.
Multitasking vs productivity
Most psychologists and academics agree: multitasking does not mean higher overall productivity, and it could even damage your brain. Back in 2009, Stanford University researchers published a widely circulated study on multitasking, specifically juggling media like phones and computers.i They found that multitaskers are bombarded with so much information and stimuli at once, they can’t pay attention or remember it all properly. What’s more, by practising multitasking, people do not strengthen any practical capabilities. Study lead Eyal Ophir said “We kept looking for what they’re better at, and we didn’t find it.”ii Several studies and reviews have come to similar conclusions. One found that multitasking caused an IQ drop similar to that of smoking marijuana or pulling an all-nighter.iii Another found that increased multitasking leads to lower accuracy of results – people might be able technically get things done all at once, but each thing would be done less effectively.iv One study actually put a number on it, finding that we lose up to 40% of our productive time just to the mental blocks created by shifting quickly back and forth between tasks.v
How to be more productive
The same research also provides clues as to how to improve productivity by reducing or altering the context of multitasking. It’s not always possible to do one thing at a time and finish it completely before moving on to the next thing, but switching back and forth between tasks fewer times is a good start. If you know you’ll have to juggle lots of things in a given period, but you have some flexibility in scheduling, try not to group similar tasks together. Similar tasks require attention from the same parts of your brain. This is why, for example, it can be difficult to use online chat or write an email while talking on the phone, but it’s not difficult to listen to the radio or a podcast while doing housework. Outside multitasking research, there are plenty of productivity strategies that can help you feel as though you’re fitting more in to your day, without compromising the quality of what you do. Setting goals or success benchmarks for tasks helps keep your time focused, and reduces mindless wandering or pointless discussion. Cleaning and organising your workspace is an easy way to help reduce the time wasted going from one job to the next. Saying no to non-essentials or delegating tasks that don’t absolutely have to be done by you are two simple ways to cut down on the number of things you’ve got to do. You could even outsource your productivity management to an app. Work project management, scheduling, prioritisation, gamified to-do lists – there really is an app for everything. Whichever strategy you go with, the most important thing is to stop trying to do everything at once. Put multitasking behind you, and you’ll be better off – now and in the long term.
i http://pnas.org/content/106/37/15583.full.pdf ii http://news.stanford.edu/2009/08/24/multitask-research-study-082409/ iii http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk/4471607.stm iv https://researchgate.net/publication/220108779_Juggling_on_a_high_wire_Multitasking_effects_on_perfo… p166 v http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.549.6169&rep=rep1&type=pdf
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