Learn what multitasking skills are really all about and discover how to improve your focus and workflow.
On an average day, most people are busy with many tasks. Before leaving our homes, we’re already handling multiple tasks — gathering our things, getting dressed, and checking our to-do lists, all while considering the afternoon's big meeting and what we need to pick up for dinner on the way home.
The demands on our attention don't stop when we arrive at work. Often, they worsen, especially for knowledge workers.
Information and tools are digital in the modern work environment, and we plug right into the data stream as soon as we arrive. It’s not long before the stream becomes a river, and our tasks become rocks and boulders demanding our focus as we ride the rapids of our day.
We’ve become adept at maneuvering through our work environment. We boast about our multitasking abilities as we switch between different tasks on our to-do lists, feeling like we’re conquering our day. We've heard that multitasking isn't ideal, but we do it anyway because it feels like the only way to get everything done.
But here's the thing — constantly switching tasks that you should be giving your full attention to isn’t effective multitasking.
In fact, we aren’t really multitasking at all.
In this article, we’ll examine how we switch between complex tasks when multitasking and how that affects our workflow. We’ll also reveal how to maximize your multitasking skills by focusing on one task at a time.
What is multitasking?
Most of us think of the typical examples when we hear the word “multitasking” — the busy receptionist answering phone calls, scheduling appointments, and welcoming patients in the reception area of the doctor’s office, or the server taking multiple orders, bringing food to several tables, and finalizing checks at the counter of a deli.
Multitasking typically refers to the act of doing several things at once. This can be physical, like washing dishes while talking on the phone, or mental, like thinking about what you'll say when it’s your turn while listening to your team member’s presentation.
Many people consider multitasking abilities desirable. Recruiters seek "multitasking skills" while scanning resumes on Linkedin, and project managers tout their ability to juggle multiple tasks as a strength. After all, in our busy lives, if we can multitask, we can get more done in less time, right?
Wrong. Unless you're one of the 2.5% of people considered "supertaskers," you probably aren’t getting more done because you aren’t actually doing two things at once.
Multitasking or task-switching?
Although we like to believe we're good at multitasking, research shows no correlation between our inflated perception and our actual multitasking ability.
True multitasking — performing two or more actions simultaneously — just isn’t possible because of how our brains are built. The human brain is single-task oriented and lacks the cognitive and neural abilities necessary to do multiple things simultaneously.
When we attempt to multitask, what's really happening is that the brain is quickly shifting its focus back and forth between the two jobs — a process known as task switching.
When switching tasks, the human brain follows four steps:
- Shift alert
- Rule activation for task #1
- Rule activation for task #2
Sometimes switching tasks isn't a big deal. While walking on the treadmill and browsing social media, for example, it doesn't matter if it takes a little longer to switch focus.
However, certain things have higher cognitive demands. Complex tasks that require our full attention, such as writing, reading, and critical thinking, place increased demands on the brain's control and attention systems. These systems can partially minimize the impact, but multitasking isn't free.
The costs of multitasking
We've all been there — we're in the flow, working on an important task when we're interrupted by a phone call, social media notification, or a team member. Just like that, poof! Our focus disappears — and it often takes a long time to recover.
Disruptions to our workflow require task-switching, a cognitively demanding process that significantly impacts our focus. Switch costs occur when shifting from one task to another diminishes performance quality or speed. Numerous psychological studies have demonstrated that switching between tasks has major costs, including:
- Increased time on task. The brain has to constantly refocus its attention when we try to multitask, making it take much longer to complete tasks. Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found it takes up to 23 minutes to regain our focus after switching tasks.
- Reduced accuracy and quality. Recent research has revealed that rapidly changing from a primary task to a second task can impair memory. Switching tasks also results in slower response times and more errors on the second task.
- Difficulty sustaining attention. Multitasking can lead to "attention residue," which occurs when we struggle to transition our attention from an unfinished task to a new one. This results in split attention, preventing us from giving our full attention to either.
- Increased stress. According to recent research, there is a direct correlation between multitasking and nervous system dysregulation. Chronic stress is a severe risk factor for developing particular mental and physical diseases, like depression and hypertension, and is associated with higher mortality.
- Poor learning. Research from the University of Connecticut found that students who multitasked in class spent more time studying outside the course but received worse grade point averages.
- Inability to find flow. The flow state is a peak performance state when we're fully immersed in an activity and performing at our best. It requires a laser-like focus on a single task, which is impossible to achieve if we're constantly switching tasks or getting distracted.
The results can be detrimental when you spread your attention and focus too thinly. Although multitasking might feel more productive, it usually results in shallow work. To work deeply and effectively, you must focus on a single task at a time. Giving one task 100% of your attention is better than giving three jobs 33%.
Are there any benefits of multitasking?
Although the costs of switching tasks are many, a small amount of research suggests a few specific benefits of effective multitasking. In one study, for example, researchers found that people who multitasked had higher levels of creativity and generated more creative ideas than those who didn't.
Another study found that, although multitasking reduced performance, people performed better overall when they viewed themselves as doing multiple tasks. People who perceived their actions as multitasking were more engaged and, therefore, outperformed those who thought of the same activity as single-tasking.
Cultural influences may be responsible for the positive response to multitasking. According to "attention economy" studies, modern society receives too much information. As Herbert Simon, an economist and psychologist, said, "a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." To cope, we must multitask, despite its inefficiency.
However, what is valuable isn’t the multitasking itself but the skills we gain from it, including:
- Time management
While effectively managing multiple tasks is beneficial, we can develop these skills without multitasking. In fact, focusing your attention on one task at a time can help you develop these skills more effectively.
7 ways to turn multitasking skills into a single task advantage
Let's be honest — we'll always have more than one task to do. Most jobs require employees to juggle multiple tasks and priorities. But rather than slowing our productivity by switching tasks, we can learn to focus on one at a time.
You can use multitasking skills to your advantage with these seven tips:
- Set priorities. When you have multiple tasks, it's essential to determine which ones are considered a high priority. Clear priorities will help you focus on the things likely to move the needle forward. A sense of direction can also help prevent you from feeling overwhelmed.
- Create a schedule. Once you've determined your priorities, create a schedule and allot a specific time for each task. The best time management will enable you to stay focused and avoid worry by giving you enough time to complete everything.
- Remove distractions. Focusing can be difficult when you're doing too much at once — distractions are one of the main reasons we task-switch. To stay focused, we need to remove them from our environment. This means turning off our phones, finding a quiet place to work, and not having too many browser tabs open. It will make things more stressful.
- Batch similar tasks together. When you have several similar jobs to complete, batch them into the same work session and work on them sequentially. Staying focused and avoiding task switching is easier when you focus on a single concept or action at a time.
- Simplify your workflow. Did you know we waste up to 60 minutes a day switching between apps with 68% of us doing it more than 10 times an hour? Simplifying your workflow is a great way to get more done. Remove unnecessary steps and divide tasks into smaller, manageable chunks that you can complete one by one.
- Delegate and outsource. Only you know when you've reached your limit. When your to-do list becomes overwhelming, it's time to delegate or outsource some of your tasks. You'll have more time for important tasks and won't need to worry about quality.
- Have a plan for interruptions. Planning for interruptions reduces attention residue and performance loss. Research has proven the effectiveness of a "ready-to-resume intervention."
While multitasking is not ideal, there are times when it's necessary. By following these tips, you can use your multitasking skills to your advantage and minimize the adverse effects of task-switching.
Use your multitasking skills to stop task switching and start focusing
Focusing on one task is hard when there's so much to do. Multitasking seems like it would help us get more done, but it actually makes us less productive and more likely to make mistakes. Put multitasking skills to use — you can stop task-switching and start focusing by following these tips. Take advantage of your multitasking skills and follow these tips to stop task-switching and start focusing.
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