Multi-tasking is the often over-used term for the supposed secret to being your most productive. Whether at work, home or at leisure, the concept that you can get more accomplished by doing more things at once has taken over in recent years. Touted for years as the best way to increase productivity, research is now showing the opposite is true in most cases.
The fact is that splitting your attention on numerous tasks instead of focusing on one singular undertaking doesn’t usually equate with accomplishing those numerous tasks either more quickly or with better quality. For most of us, our brains are better able to problem solve and apply necessary skills for a task if it is uninterrupted. Imagine if a surgeon decided that while the nurse was suctioning the area he would just pop onto his website and update a link or two? That sounds outrageous – and that is an extreme comparison – but you get the idea. It takes focus away from one task and puts in on another. More time is then needed to re-acquaint your brain with the first task when you return to it. That is time lost and, essentially, wasted. A better term to use for this practice is switch-tasking as it more accurately describes what our brains have to do.
Here is one example that you can do yourself to see this in action. Do this with a timer to see the results. One a piece of paper, in a straight line, write the numbers 1 to 25, in order. Below that line, write the alphabet, in order. Check your time. Most people will do this in 35-45 seconds.
Now, try those same tasks but do them at the same time: write the number “1”, and then write “A”, then “2”, then “B” and so on, until you have completed. Time yourself and see the difference. This is a simple way to see just how much having to flip your focus affects your results. The same thing happens when you are trying to do the next monthly budget for work and schedule staff vacation dates at the same time. Or trying to make dinner and have a conversation via text. It all may get done, but at what cost? Efficiency and quality are what we are all striving for so shouldn’t we find the best way to achieve it?
Start by taking an honest look at where you currently use the practice of multi-tasking. Most of us do it unconsciously; we don’t even realize how often we switch between the items that need our attention. Before you try to change your behaviours, take the time to track your daily tasks at work and home. Old fashioned pen and paper is easy as you can just jot down what you are doing as you are doing it. Review it and you will be surprised at how much you jump from task to task during a day. Next, make small changes. If you have a job that has numerous “small” tasks each day as part of your workload, make a list as soon as you get to work. Prioritize, divide and conquer! Do one thing at a time – and don’t move to the next task until you are completely done the first one.
The same re-organization of action works in the home. How many of us start folding laundry, go to put something away and decide to go through the sweaters while we’re there, then realize that we should organize the tax files in the box next to the dresser while we do THAT. Only to walk into the laundry room hours later to clothes that still aren’t folded? Make a list and stick to it. When you put away the article of clothes and think you should tackle the sweaters, don’t! Go back to the laundry, making a quick stop to add the sweater tackling to your list so you can do it – later – when you are done the laundry. It’s a simple change but an effective one.
Take the time to stop multi-(non)tasking and give the option of “divide and conquer” your tasks a try. You might be surprised at how much more efficient you are by doing less instead of more at the same time.