Do you know that there is no such thing as multitasking? Or that switching constantly from email to Whatsapp to Facebook is making us dumber?
In our always-on digital age where we are perpetually tethered to our digital devices, multitasking enabled by technology has been touted as the greatest productivity invention since sliced bread.
Unfortunately, nothing can be further from the truth.
Let us look at some sobering facts on what electronic multitasking is doing to us.
The costs of digital distractions and interruptions
Like it or loathe it, the average adult checks his or her phone a staggering 150 different times throughout the day!
What this means is that people are checking their smart phones once every 6 minutes (based on a 6 am-10 pm day). The frequency would probably increase for teens and youths, who are permanently affixed to their mobiles.
John Medina (Brain Rules) further revealed that people who are interrupted - and therefore have to switch their attention back and forth - take 50% more time to finish a task. Their divided focus and attention also resulted in up to 50% more errors than those who focused on one task at a time.
Multitasking = constant context switching
The thing is this. Multitasking is a misnomer.
When we juggle between different tasks - both online and offline - we engage in what is called "constant context switching".
For human workers, context switching means that we stop work on one activity and pick up again after performing a different task on a different project. Doing so would incur "switching costs".
In a recent study, it was found that a person who worked on two projects did not split his or her productivity equally by 50 percent each. Rather, he or she yielded a 40 percent effort per project because of the time (roughly 20 percent) needed for context switching.
This became far worse when a team member was assigned five projects. His or her productivity actually plummeted below 10 percent, with 80 percent effort lost to switching between project contexts!
Monotaskers fare better than multitaskers
In this article, Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT, gave us the bottom-line of what multitasking would do to our brain:
“Our brains are not wired to multitask. Though we think they’re handling multiple activities at the same time, what they’re really doing is constantly switching between them. The problem is, there’s a cognitive price to pay each time we put them through that process.” - Earl Miller, Professor of Neuroscience at MIT
The truth is that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information cannot pay attention, recall information, or switch from one job to another as well as those who complete one task at a time.
What's ironical is that monotaskers actually perform better in multitasking than multitaskers themselves!
In their studies, the researchers found that heavy multitaskers actually performed worse at multitasking than those who focused on one single thing at a time.
Frequent multitaskers had more trouble organising their thoughts and filtering out distracting and irrelevant information. As a result of this, they were slower at switching from one activity to another.
Nine strategies for monotasking
Now that we have learned why monotasking (doing one thing at a time) works far better than multitasking, what habits can we adopt to incorporate it into our lives?
Let me start by giving you some ideas here:
1) Turn off the technology
First and foremost, turn off your smartphone or switch it to "flight" and "silent" mode. Doing so would temporarily disable all beeps and notifications from Whatsapp, email, Facebook, Twitter, and the numerous other messaging apps in your phone.
If you can't resist peering into it, put your smartphone into another room, or give it to another person for "safekeeping" while you work on your task.
2) Batch process related tasks together
Work on related tasks together, and try to work on them in succession. For example, if you are doing a monthly report documenting your organisation's sales performance, you could also work on a summary email highlighting the hits and misses of the month, as well as learning points.
By doing so, you help to minimise the switching costs incurred by moving from one activity (eg writing a memo) to another totally unrelated one (eg interviewing for a new staff).
3) Schedule your day and week
Personally, I find that productivity soars when I am able to fix the time of the day for different activities. For example, mornings would be spent on focused writing work, afternoons on responding to client requests and emails, and evenings on more creative pursuits.
Naturally this requires us to have some control over our calendar and time, which brings me to the next suggestion.
4) Manage stakeholder expectations
Establish some ground-rules with your colleagues, customers, friends, family members and even bosses. Batch process the way you respond to emails, Whatsapp messages, Facebook messages or phone calls, and only do so at fixed periods of time in the day.
Now I know that this can be challenging, especially with clients or bosses. Help these stakeholders understand that you would be more productive and useful to them if they allow you an uninterrupted period of time to focus on the job at hand. If they don't respect your time or working style, it could perhaps be timely for your to seek your fortunes elsewhere.
5) Create a "To-Do List" and tick it off one by one
Where possible, have a "to-do list" which depicts what you need to accomplish over a fixed time period. Do not allow yourself to waver too much from this list, and tick it off one-at-a-time.
Thus, if you have not completed a task, do not begin on the next one until you have done so.
To stay on top of your tasks, remind yourself what really needs to get done. Keep you to-do list somewhere prominent, and refer to it every single day. Use colour code to highlight the most important tasks. Prioritise your time so that these get the firstfruits of your day (usually the morning).
6) Keep a single screen/tab open
To limit yourself to Internet temptations like Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube, keep to just having a single screen open to you. By doing so, you are singularly focused on that task right in front of you, and prevented from switching your attention elsewhere.
7) Change work locations where possible
Sometimes, the monotony of working in the same place may be broken by choosing novel work environments. This could be achieved through either looking for unoccupied meeting rooms/libraries in your office building, or adjourning to a cafe.
Note, however, that it is important to choose an environment that is conducive for your task. If you feel that you would be distracted by the people walking in front of you, or the sounds that a cafe generates, it may be better to find a quieter work space where you can focus and concentrate better.
Personally, I find that calm, soothing and vocal-free music helps me to concentrate on my tasks better. The act of plugging into earphones also helps to reduce ambient noise and distractions and allows me to stay focused in my own little universe, cocooning myself from the world while attacking the task at hand.
9) Give yourself some down time
Last, but certainly not least, you will be more productive if you have the chance to step away from the mentally challenging tasks once in a while. This could perhaps be a 3 to 5 minutes break every 45 minutes or hour, depending on your concentration powers.
When you do so, take a walk, look out the window or chat with colleagues, friends or family members (provided you are not interrupting them). You may also wish to grab a quick snack or a drink.
Do you have other tips on improving your monotasking ability? I'd love to hear them.