You’ve likely heard someone say they’re good at multitasking or even consider yourself a great multitasker. Simply put, multitasking is the act of performing two or more tasks at the same time. However, this assertion is fundamentally flawed as the brain cannot entirely focus on two tasks simultaneously. What happens is that, during multitasking, the brain effectively switches from one task to the other with a big loss in productivity by as much as 40%. Instead of attempting to multitask, focus all your efforts on the “right” tasks done correctly to optimize performance.
Why people multitask
Some people think they’re great at multitasking because they can, in fact, reduce productivity loss by moving more seamlessly between tasks. For example, Linda Pawlik Picardo, an actress, contractor, and custom jewelry pieces maker, has been successful in all those areas because of her ability to multitask efficiently. But most of us mere mortals cannot multitask efficiently and, instead, encounter some issues such as split focus, an inability to prioritize, and burnout.
A rather large body of research supports the inability of people to effectively multitask. Despite this evidence, people continue to multitask, with Millenials switching between platforms 27 times an hour, thus destroying their concentration. Even as I sat down to research and compose this post, I fought my normal tendency to check my email each time a new message appeared (of course, as a marketing professor, I face the demands of college students who think we do nothing all day except scan our email waiting to answer their missives and queries immediately and thoroughly). So, if we know how unproductive multitasking is, why do we continue to engage in the practice?
We crave the stimulation that comes from switching tasks as we become easily bored with a single task. It’s the same reason why my college students wait until the last minute to get an assignment ready for submission — the stress and anxiety heighten their stimulation, even if that’s negative stimulation. Multitasking provides more than just stimulation, it provides instant rewards (ie. emptying that email box as soon as something comes in gives you the instant gratification of an empty mailbox). Multitasking also addresses our extreme need for variety.
Negative consequences from multitasking
The cost of multitasking reached hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide, according to a recent study by Bryan College. Over time, according to that study, constantly switching from task to task reduces IQ by 15 points, lowers emotional intelligence, and decreases brain density. In an organizational setting, multitasking results in poor decision-making, stress, mistakes, and lack of creativity. In a worst-case scenario, distraction can lead to injury or death, especially when operating equipment or working in dangerous conditions.
Of course, some multitasking is normal, so we shouldn’t throw out the concept without considering the context. For instance, working out to music actually elevates mood, reduces the negative attitudes toward exercise, and a fast tempo actually increases exercise results. Doing mindless chores like folding laundry or shaping cookies easily accommodates conversation.
In a marketing context, multitasking is common when consuming content. We call these folks connected consumers because they’re attached to multiple screens at the same time. And, while this hyper-connectedness distracts them and makes it harder for advertising to reach attention and recall requirements, it does allow users to see a commercial on TV and order it online using their iPad or mobile device.
Optimize performance instead of multitasking
To prevent these potentially negative impacts and improve your productivity, consider the following methods of enhancing your skills.
To optimize performance, you need a schedule to keep you on track. This serves as a roadmap for the activities of the day and must include a to-do list as well as other tools such as Pert charts or timelines to ensure you tackle elements of a project to ensure completion by the deadline. As the day progresses, follow the schedule and check things you have accomplished off the to-do list so you can better focus on what is left to accomplish. It is imperative to have all your activities documented and tracked.
If you run a team, tools like those listed in the graphic at the top of this post help schedule and manage tasks for a team so that each member can easily determine what tasks they must accomplish as well as seeing how the overall project is going. That way, if a team member is ahead of their scheduled tasks, they can (and should) reach out to team members who are falling behind to ensure the project is finished on time.
We all have a tendency to prefer certain tasks over others and we naturally prefer tasks we enjoy over those we hate (that’s why there’s always a mad rush to file taxes that requires post offices have staff on hand to accept tax returns up until midnight on the tax deadline).
However, doing preferred tasks often doesn’t translate to meeting deadlines. Instead, use a Pert chart like the one on the left to prioritize tasks that impact delivery. You often find a critical path of tasks that has the ability to help you meet your deadline or, if not prioritized correctly, miss the deadline. If you prioritize tasks along the critical path, you’ll likely meet your deadline. Then, use any extra time available to perform additional tasks needed to meet promises.
Perform similar tasks together
During multitasking, you switch your focus a lot. And when the focus and cognitive elements of each task are quite different, it takes longer to effectively switch between tasks. But if the tasks are similar, then it makes much more sense to perform the tasks together. For instance, you can create an entire week of posts by doing them all at one time rather than setting up a time each day to craft the next day’s posts. Other tasks such as resizing images, creating email copy, and entering accounting records are best done all at once.
Part of the benefit of combining tasks comes when you save time navigating to and logging in to the software used to accomplish the task and part of the benefit comes through focusing on a single idea. Hence, you can set up all your email broadcasts for the month in a single sitting.
Distractions at all levels reduce efficiency and productivity. Everyone has different distractions, which means you should know what things can draw your focus from your work and make sure you avoid or limit them. The relative absence of distractions explains, at least in part, why working from home resulted in higher levels of productivity as offices closed due to Covid restrictions. A recent study found that lockdowns helped optimize performance by almost 49 minutes each day.
Although there are benefits from loose interpersonal interactions that occur in the average office, too much interaction is a distraction, albeit a welcome one for many people. So, if you face a deadline, keep your door closed or post a sign on your cubicle saying you can’t talk until a certain time. If someone’s conversation is distracting, politely ask them to move away from your desk. If you find children constantly ask for snacks, try setting a scheduled snack time and don’t provide snacks except during that time period.
In the modern world of work, where everything is fast-paced, you must optimize performance to stay in the game. Try these tactics to help.
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