Recent estimates are that you can lose up to 40% of your productivity if you multi-task.
For many years the psychology research has shown that people can only attend to one task at a time. Let me be even more specific.The term multi-tasking is actually a misnomer. People can’t actually do more than one task at a time. Instead we switch tasks. So the term that is used in the research is “task switching”. The research shows that people can attend to only one cognitive task at a time. You can only be thinking about one thing at a time. You can only be conducting one mental activity at a time. So you can be talking or you can be reading. You can be reading or you can be typing. You can be listening or you can be reading. One thing at a time.
We are pretty good at switching back and forth quickly, so we think we are actually multi-tasking, but in reality we are not.
The only exception that the research has uncovered is that if you are doing a physical task that you have done very very often and you are very good at, then you can do that physical task while you are doing a mental task i.e.: walking and talking. However a 2009 Hyman study showed that people talking on their cell phones while walking, ran into people more often and didn’t notice what was going on around them.
Facts about task-switching:
- It takes more time to get tasks completed if you switch between them than if you do them one at a time.
- You make more errors when you switch than if you do one task at a time.
- If the tasks are complex then these time and error penalties increase.
- Each task switch might waste only 1/10th of a second, but if you do a lot of switching in a day it can add up to a loss of 40% of your productivity.
- Task switching involves several parts of your brain: Brain scans during task switching show activity in four major areas: the pre-frontal cortex is involved in shifting and focusing your attention, and selecting which task to do when. The posterior parietal lobe activates rules for each task you switch to, the anterior cingulate gyrus monitors errors, and the pre-motor cortex is preparing for you to move in some way.
When people are asked to deal with multiple streams of information they can’t pay attention to them, can’t remember as well, and don’t switch as well as they thought they would – even college students.
– Clifford Nass, Stanford University
Here are 5 ways successful people avoid the pitfalls of both multitasking and multislacking:
- Use the 80/20 rule — 20% of the work you do gives 80% of the impact and effectiveness. We often make the mistake of thinking that being busy means being effective. And the busier we get the more multi-tasking we end up doing. According to the research the result is that you are actually less effective. Focus on identifying the 20% of your tasks that are really effective, and do them one at a time.
- Work on your most important tasks first — I think one of the reasons that we give in to multi-tasking is that we feel more and more anxious as the day goes on that we have not accomplished what we wanted to, or what was important to us. Identify at the start of each day (or better yet, at the end of the day before) one or two really important things that you want to accomplish during that one day. Then do those tasks first. The sense of relief and accomplishment is immense, and you will find that you are more relaxed as the day goes on.
- Implement “batch processing” — Do you sit at your desk with your email open and then get sucked into reading and answering emails all day long every time they come in? This encourages multi-tasking. Instead, try batch processing your emails. Decide on certain times of the day (in the morning, at noon, in the late afternoon, for example) that you are going to check and deal with email. Some people (Timothy Ferriss, for example, author of The 4-Hour Workweek) get really radical with this idea. Ferriss advocates that you check email once a day or less. You can use this not only for email, but for anything that is usually a distraction for you, such as making phone calls, checking voicemail, texting, etc. If you do batch processing you can then eliminate that task as a multi-tasking distractor during the other parts of your day.
- Use concentrated time — The opposite of multi-tasking is concentrated time. So if you are trying to stop multi-tasking you must start doing the opposite — give yourself blocks of time during which you are only working on one task. The idea of setting aside an entire day to work on that presentation you have coming up, may seem like it is impossible right now, but it doesn’t have to be an entire day. Start by taking one hour. Close down your email and all your other software. Turn off your phone or turn down the volume. Close the door to your office if you have a door. If you don’t have a door then figure out a place to go where people won’t find you. Then take that hour or 2 hours or half day or full day and work only on the one task. You will be amazed at how much you will accomplish and how energized it makes you feel.
- Leave blank spaces – The research on creativity shows us that it is the pre-frontal cortex that puts ideas together. But the pre-frontal cortex can only work on one thing at a time. When you are multi-tasking you are taxing your pre-frontal cortex. You will never solve problems if your pre-frontal cortex doesn’t get quiet time to work on integrating information. This may sound paradoxical, but if you stop thinking about a problem or particular topic you will then be able to solve it! This means you have to make time for blank spaces in your day. You need to have time in your day when you are doing “nothing” as far as your brain is concerned. Not talking, not reading, not writing. You can go for a walk, get exercise, listen to music, or stare into space. The more blank space the more work you will get done. Multi-tasking is the enemy of blank space.
The goal is to avoid when possible multi-tasking because as you now know, it won’t lead to your best possible results. There will be times when you have no choice, but keep these to a minimum. Go slow but practice what the wildly successful have been practicing for years and begin implementing these tactics today. You may just surprise yourself at how efficient and effective you can be.