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Is multitasking making you less productive?

How do you prioritise your priorities? Follow these simple steps to a more productive you.

The word priority first appeared in the English language in the 1400s as a way to describe ‘the very first thing’ that ought to be done. That definition, says Greg McKeown in his book Essentialism, remained the same until the 1900s, when a subtle but momentous shift occurred: we started talking about ‘priorities’ in the plural form. Suddenly we had multiple ‘very first things’.

The problem with having countless priorities is that none can truly be considered a priority. But in the demanding business world, you might come face to face with multiple ‘very first things’ that ought to be done on a daily basis. When faced with having to prioritise your priorities, the logical response is to multitask - another relatively new addition to the dictionary: the word itself first appearing in a 1965 report by IBM to describe its newest computer model. It soon began to be applied to human behaviour, and since then, an ability to multitask has been regarded as a huge plus in the workplace.

The problem, say experts, is that there’s no such thing as multitasking. When you think you’re juggling multiple tasks simultaneously, what you’re actually doing is ‘switch-tasking’, a habit that slows you down and reduces the quality of your work.

A Journal Of Experimental Psychology study found that students trying to solve a complicated problem did so 40% slower when they had various other tasks on the go at the same time – what researchers refer to as “interference”.

The task-switcher moving between jobs on the to-do list feels like they’re getting more done, but in reality the seconds lost between those multiple task-switches all add up.

A study in the International Journal of Information Management concluded that each time you encounter inbox interference (pausing to read or send a new email), you take 64 seconds to re-engage with the task you were working on. This singular distractor adds up to one out of every six minutes lost for the average person who checks email every five minutes, or the equivalent of one hour and 20 minutes in an average eight-hour working day. Furthermore, this type of technology distraction, found a Hewlett Packard report, can result in a 10-point fall in your IQ – the impact of which is similar to that brought on by a lost night’s sleep. And all that’s before you factor in the impact of bouncing between other, non-email related activities on the task-switch list.

Single- or uni-tasking, say a whole host of business thinkers, is the solution. But with a bulging to-do list of endless priorities, how can you resist the urge to try doing everything at once?

Author of Singletasking: Get More Done – One Thing At A Time, Devora Zack, and leadership expert Peter Bregman offer the following suggestions:

 

Commit to the philosophy of one thing at a time.

Tell yourself that minor distractions (e.g. non urgent emails) must wait until you’ve completed a priority task, or at least the chunk of it you’re aiming for per sitting.

 

Start by cluster-tasking.

If you’ve lots of big projects on the go, aiming to complete one at a time might not be realistic. Become a master goal maker, breaking down priorities into mini goals and then blocking out isolated chunks of time to tackle batches.

 

Build fences.

Consider what distractions might prevent you from complete focus, and work on eliminating them. That might mean putting your phone on silent, cancelling desktop email notifications, booking out a small meeting room where you won’t be disturbed, wearing headphones, asking colleagues to avoid asking questions until a set time, or requesting a work from home day.

 

Create a parking space for disruptive thoughts.

Even if you’ve eliminated distractions, your own thoughts and ideas might act as focus-disabling factors. Avoid forgetting your great ideas - and the inevitable stress resulting from trying to hold everything in your head – by keeping a notebook to hand, in which you record anything important as it jumps into your mind. Once you have jotted it down, set the thought aside until you’re ready to give it your complete attention.

 

Learn to say no.

If you’ve cluster-tasked your diary, you’ll have a firmer grasp of your own scope to take on more work. If you’re currently at full capacity, taking on more is likely to see you spinning headlong back into multitasking territory. If colleagues ask for your help, explain why you’re not in a position to deliver to the best of your abilities at this moment in time. That can be harder with a boss, in which case “yes, but” can be your best friend, as in “Yes I can take on that project, but I’d do a better job if … I was able to start in a fortnight; you could be flexible with the deadline; I had an intern to help me out; I was able to work from home for a few days; I could get some extra resource on an existing project in order to free up time”, and so on.

If you’re a seasoned multitasker you may find it harder to change: research shows that the longer you’ve approached work with a multitasking mentality, the more you’ll be affected by its downsides and the harder you’ll find kicking the habit. Stick with the outlined steps – uni-tasking might just be the key to a more productive you.

 

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