Why ‘Multi-Tasking’ is Failing You and How You Can Become More Productive
Multi-tasking can feel like an addiction. We live in a fast-paced, technologically fuelled society. The average American checks social media 17 times a day. Staggered at that number? It’s small compared to an impressive daily average of 40 times for smartphone users in Thailand, Argentina, Mexico and South Africa.
Writing this article has certainly been an eye-opener. I was always very proud of my supposed multi-tasking abilities. That was before I learnt that feeling terribly busy and pumped up from juggling several balls simultaneously is not the most efficient use of my time. In fact, this behaviour is to the detriment of my productivity. So I’m going cold-turkey. I’m attempting to finish this article with my phone on airplane mode. Social media, emails and a fresh cup of tea must all wait. Keep calm and carry on…
The Reality of Multi-Tasking
So what do we mean by ‘multi-tasking’? It is the ability to do several things at the same time. How fantastic! Except that the reality is we are generally not multi-tasking at all. Rather, we are ‘task-shifting’.
The brain cannot function on more than one task at a time. Flitting from a phone call to a word document to YouTube to an email is NOT multi-tasking. We switch task, rapidly shifting from one thing to another. Which means we are interrupting ourselves unproductively whilst losing time in the process. Doesn’t sound so great anymore…
Why Are We Such Serial ‘Task-Shifters’?
We live in a fast-paced society. We are increasingly becoming accustomed to having instant access to information and communication. It has become the norm for us to flick through Facebook whilst socialising, respond to emails at the same time as unconsciously eating breakfast, and the standard 21st century behaviour: talk on the phone or text while blindly walking down the street. My dad used to comment that whenever he called me, I would always be running for a bus.
Beware of your procrastinator self. It loves you to avoid that thing by busying yourself with anything but that thing. Giving one’s full attention to a task we don’t want to do can feel very uncomfortable.
How Task-Shifting Is Failing Us
According to a whole raft of studies:
• Each task-shift might only amount to wasting 1/10th of a second. However, if you do a lot of task-shifting in a day it can add up to a whopping 40% reduction in productivity.
• Desk job employees are distracted on average every 10.5 minutes by tweets and IMs.
• The average desk job employee loses 2.1 hours per day due to interruptions or distractions.
• Being distracted by calls or emails can lead to a drop in IQ. Some reports claim up to 10 IQ points – this is akin to missing out on a night’s sleep.
• The more we “task-shift”, the worse we get at it and the more unproductive we are. Practice does not always make perfect!
• Drivers using a hands-free mobile phone are slower at recognising and reacting to hazards.
• University of California Irvine researchers measured the heart rates of employees with and without constant access to office email. They found that those who received a steady stream of messages remained in a constant “high alert” mode with higher heart rates. Those without continuous email access did less task-shifting and were less stressed because of it.
Breaking The Habit
My challenge for you is to refrain (or at least attempt to refrain) from task-shifting for one WHOLE week. Here are some tools to help you:
• Try putting your phone on airplane mode when in meetings, when with family or friends, and while you sleep.
• Limit how many times a day you check your emails.
• Block out time for each task (starting with the most important). Allow no distractions. That means no social media, no emails, no phone calls.
• Try setting a timer for your blocked-out time. Lawyers are well versed in completing work against the clock. Use that to your advantage. Play around with what time suits you best. I would suggest starting with 20 minutes followed by a 2-minute break. 20 minutes can be extended up to 90 minutes (with longer breaks).
• Notice when you have the greatest energy and focus. Use those periods for your most mentally challenging work.
• And finally, take a deep breath and slow down.
I would love to know how you get on so feel free to ping me an email. After you’ve finished whatever it is you’re doing of course…