5 Ways to Break the Multitasking Habit


Just the very word has a glow of productivity about it.   After all, if you can get one thing done, why not get three or four?  What could be more efficient?

Plenty, it turns out.

Multitasking doesn’t really exist.  Maybe it wouldn’t have such a glow if we called it what it really is:  constantly shifting your mental state so that cognitive bandwidth is greatly compromised.  To put it bluntly, if being effective is about working smarter, multitasking is about working stupid.

When it comes to complex cognitive processing, the human brain can only do one thing at a time.  What we call “multitasking” is really task shifting; constantly switching from one focus to the next.  Something that we’re not neurologically designed to do well.

This task shifting comes with a cost.  Switching is mentally exhausting.  It consumes oxygenated glucose in the brain, which just so happens to be the same fuel that your brain uses to accomplish a task.   Not only does it take more time, your net work is of worse quality. Probably not what you intended when you first start “multitasking” in the first place.  In fact, research has shown that task shifting can cost as much as 40% of someone’s productive time.

So, if you find you’ve developed the bad habit of “multitasking”, here are five things you can do to get out of it.

1.    Do One Thing at a Time

You now know that your brain can only do one complex cognitive task a time. So set up your work to reflect this.  If you’re reading, read.  If you’re writing, write. If you’re listening, listen.

The only “exception” to multitasking is if one of your tasks isn’t mentally taxing—going for a walk, for example. The one task can be done on auto-pilot while you focus on the other. (Not suggested for operating motor vehicles.)

2.    Avoid Interruptions

Your focused attention is about the most valuable resource you have.  It’s also the most precious.  When you lose it, it’s quite hard to get back.  Research has found that when people are interrupted, it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to re-focus on their work.

Make your environment an interruption-free zone.  Are there auto-notifications you need to turn off?  Ringers to put on silent?  Internet to disconnect?  Doors to close? People to avoid? What is the optimal space that can help you stay focused?

3.    Make an appointment with yourself

Nearly everyone I work with say their work would benefit from chunks of focused, uninterrupted time.  On the other hand, they also say they rarely carve out such time.  Let’s face it: such blocks of time won’t carve themselves.  You need to set boundaries and be intentional.   Make a date with yourself.

Look at last week’s calendar.  How many meetings did you attend that were total rubbish?  How many appointments were low priority?  What if, instead, you had made a date with an extremely valuable client: You! Having decent sized dedicated chunks of time is the key to getting anything of importance completed.

4.    Eliminate Distractions

As we have more and more available distractions, our human attention span keeps decreasing.  This is no coincidence.  Take a page out of the “choice architecture” playbook:  if you don’t want to be distracted, get the distractions out of sight and mind.  (For example, it’s a lot easier to resist eating cookies if you don’t have them in the house.)

In meetings, don’t have your laptop out.  If you’re working on your laptop during a meeting, you’re not focused on the meeting content.  Same thing with phones and any other technology.  Focus is easier when there’s only one thing to focus on.

You can use this theory to clean up your work space, too. It helps to stay focused if you don’t have other items in your visual field tempting you to distraction. Ideally, your work environment should be an aid to focus, not a hindrance.

5.    Do the Important Things First

“Oh look!  A new email in my inbox!  This will only take a minute…”

–Famous last words of an unfocused worker.

It feels good to check things off the to-do list.  In fact, some people love how good it feels that they do stuff, then write it up onto a list, and then check it off.

You can fill your day with getting stuff done, but is it the right stuff?  What’s essential for you to do?   Take some time to plan and prioritize:  what’s important? What’s urgent?  Are those lists the same? (Not necessarily.)  Focus your time and energy so that you start with the things that matter.  If you start with them, you’ll get to them.

To sum up: Jumping from task to task will wear down your cognitive capacity.  You’ll do shoddier work.  You’ll take more time doing it.

If you want to break free of the multitasking myth, breakup with your outdated belief that “multitasking” works.  Be a maverick: Challenge the cultural norms of those around you.  Armed with these five techniques, you’ll be in good shape to get more done – and in less time.  In addition, you can have more fun (and energy) doing it, too.

What other techniques do you have to break away from multitasking? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below. 

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