While many people take pride in their “ability” to multitask, dividing your attention between two or more tasks can actually result in diminishing returns on your efforts. Learning about the dangers and pitfalls of multitasking, as well as strategies that can lead you to the desired end results without rapid task-switching will exponentially scale the number of tasks you can complete, increasing your efficiency and the quality of your work.
The Price We Pay for Multitasking
For the past four months and counting, I’ve been working for a startup company. The work environment is very intense, and expectations for completing numerous small (but often urgent) tasks quickly are high. While I’m not always able to stay on top of all my pending tasks, I am able to get surprisingly close. Some would claim that in this type of environment, the ability to multitask would be a desirable skill, but science has confirmed that multitasking comes at a steep price. In breaking down multitasking to its bare bones, I came across four problems that are inherent to a digital working environment:
Switching from one task to another results in huge overhead
At any given time, you only have the true capacity to devote your focus to a single action. When you multitask, you are essentially juggling two items, leaving them both half-finished. Every time you leave a task half-finished, it requires a significant amount of energy to return to it.
Think about how many times you’ve jumped from one task to another, and how difficult it was to regain your focus on the first task after you’ve tackled the interruption. You would, most likely, have to search for the right application, the right file or the specific email, only to be interrupted again by even more urgent things demanding your attention.
Multitasking carries a higher probability of making an error
When you are multitasking, the overhead of switching between activities can lead to open loops in your productivity, not to mention forgetting the status of the previous task. Not only are you exposing yourself to spending more energy and time on small tasks, you are also increasing the probability of making a mistake.
On the other hand, very simple and obvious details can get overlooked as you pay attention to two or more tasks simultaneously. The more you multitask, the greater the risk of your attention slipping and the likelihood of overlooking an obvious detail. Our hunter-gatherer brains have not evolved in such a way that enables us to split our focus between two or more items, and our attempts at rewiring our brains to do so have been unsuccessful.
Doing two things simultaneously will have diminishing returns
Watching a movie while studying for an exam comes with a hefty price tag. By doing both things half-heartedly, you will do neither effectively. Sure, you might enjoy studying more while watching the movie, you will enjoy the movie less. By dividing your focus, you won’t be able to maintain the flow of the movie’s plot-line, nor will you be able to retain the material you’re attempting to study.
These diminishing returns are not only a result of the aforementioned higher risk of error, but also of the increased time it requires to complete either task. As more interruptions come into play, the process becomes significantly slower.
Prolonged exposure to multitasking increases internal distractions
One of the most dangerous pitfalls of multitasking is that it causes the brain to become more vulnerable to internal distractions. Just consider the gravitational pull of the constant exposure to social media notifications, for example. It’s almost impossible to ignore them, yet they detract our focus from the task at hand.
When your level of engagement increases, your brain becomes prone to anticipating more interaction in the future. This anticipation creates that urge to check your Facebook or Twitter account while you are doing something else.
Email can be equally distracting. Checking your email, in and of itself, is not a problem. Often our inboxes will blow up with thousands of notifications that we need to deal with, which increases anxiety. But having a need to check email while you are in the middle of something creates additional mental overload.
How To Manage a Fast-Paced Environment
Instead of trying to become a better “multitasker,” you can increase your performance with the ability to quickly and efficiently switch between different tasks, with minimal overhead. This can be achieved by incorporating the principles of a seamless task management workflow.
These principles are designed to remove the friction of moving from one task to another, and allow you the flexibility to do so with minimal effort. Putting these principles into practice will create a working environment where switching tasks not only feels natural, but also becomes a part of your workflow, rather than an interruption.
Break bigger tasks into smaller chunks
In a high-intensity work environment, maintaining coherency and control isn’t always possible. On occasion, you will need to quickly abandon some larger tasks in order to tackle quick urgencies. Hence, it makes sense to break them down into smaller chunks so that you can achieve more (albeit smaller) milestones.
Completing smaller elements of your tasks in 15–30 minute chunks will allow you to stay in the loop and maintain your momentum.
Use software that carries contextual connections between your tasks
In a fast-paced environment where many tasks are coming your way, finding the right software solution can exponentially increase the number of tasks that you can complete. A tool that keeps track of the tasks that need to be completed, and also maintain accessibility to their related files, emails and links will significantly increase your productivity.
A software solution that scales the number of small successive tasks that you need to complete needs to follow four principles that will help you implement any task management workflow.
Practice timeboxing techniques
“Timeboxing” means isolating specific times that you reserve for working on any given project without interruptions. Explore the multitude of timeboxing strategies and find one that works for you.
I would spotlight the Pomodoro technique, which recommends that you work in 25-minute intervals, with 5-minute breaks in between sessions.Depending on the situation, I’ve found that increasing or decreasing this 25-minute rule works wonders for me. When you are highly pressed to deliver, you might want to decrease this time frame to 10 or 15 minutes; likewise, you are working on bigger tasks, that require greater focus and attention, you might want to extend this period to 50 minutes or a full hour.
You will be amazed by the amount of things you can accomplish by removing all potential distractions for just 15 minutes at a time!
Tackle the small things as you notice them
Instead of creating a backlog in your task manager, you might want to consider completing your short, easy tasks immediately. This strategy will keep your kept my task list clearer and easier to manage. David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, talks a lot about the 2-minute rule, which may work in some cases. In others, particularly for people who have too many micro-tasks on their plate, it may not be feasible. How to best manage your time is an individual issue, but if the number of small tasks demanding your attention becomes unwieldy, cleaning your your inbox might be a bit more complicated. If that’s the case, you might need to reduce this 2-minute rule, to even less, perhaps even making a 30-second rule instead.
Time to stop multitasking – and start increasing your efficiency
For many people, multitasking has become second-nature. As such, they find themselves trying to correct the inherent negative consequences of multitasking. Does this sound familiar? If so, I encourage you to try these four strategies, and overcome the obstacles of external, and above all, internal distractions. Here is a list of actionable steps that you can take to reduce the temptation to multitask:
- Break down projects into smaller tasks (so you can return to them more easily)
- Use tools that help you connect your tasks to the proper destinations (files, links, emails)
- Practice a timeboxing technique, like Pomodoro
- Complete short tasks as they come your way