Are you a multitasker? You may think you are a time-saving master, but the research proves otherwise. Let’s discuss the high price of multitasking. What does the science say, and why is it actually bad for your productivity?
If you are someone who falls for the multitasking illusion, we’ll also share strategies to help you break free from this bad habit.
Why Being a Multitasker is Killing Your Productivity
So before we get started, what does multitasking mean, exactly? In the context of work, multitasking refers to jumping between two or more contrasting tasks or trying to do too many things at once.
Examples of multitasking include reading your emails as you receive them instead of waiting until you’re done with the task you’re currently working on or listening to the news or a podcast while completing a task that requires your complete focus.
For many people, it’s nearly impossible to multitask because our brains don’t work that way. We may think we are doing two things at once, but we’re actually constantly switching back and forth, which means we’re never deeply focused on any one thing.
Our brains aren’t wired for multitasking, and the results of one study found that only a mere 2.5% of people could multitask effectively.
Even though many of us understand the value of deep focus while we work, all too often, we still jump between tasks, check our email every few minutes, and try to work while consuming other forms of media.
"They're suckers for irrelevancy," says Clifford Nass, a professor at Stanford's communications department and one of the researchers who conducted a study on multitaskers. "Everything distracts them."
What Nass and his Stanford colleagues initially set out to determine was the "gift" that seemed to give multitaskers their edge. Social scientists had long assumed that it was impossible for the brain to process more than one string of information at once. However, the researchers wondered if people who could multitask had exceptional control over their thinking and attention.
The study put college undergraduates through a sequence of three tests: memory, task switching, and focus. For each test, they divided the participants into two high and low media multitasking categories.
To their surprise, participants who were in the high media multitaskers' group turned out to be more easily distracted and less able to disregard irrelevant information than those who weren't.
In an NPR interview, Nass explained, “they actually think they're more productive… they think they can shut it off, and that's been the most striking aspect of this research.”
“The people we talk with continually said, ‘Look, when I really have to concentrate, I turn off everything and I am laser-focused. And, unfortunately, they've developed habits of mind that make it impossible for them to be laser-focused. They're suckers for irrelevancy. They just can't keep on task.”
Although multitasking may seem like a proficient way to accomplish multiple tasks at the same time, the results from Nass's Stanford experiments, as well as other studies from various researchers, suggest otherwise.
Chronic multitaskers may believe they can turn it all off and find a groove of focus, but all of that multitasking becomes ingrained. In essence, multitasking reduces the brain's ability to comprehend, focus, and perform, thereby inhibiting an individual's capacity for productivity.
Are There Benefits of Multitasking?
But wait a minute: is multitasking really so bad? Does multitasking come with any benefits, and if so, what are the advantages of multitasking?
We hate to break it to you, but in the context of work, no: there are no benefits to multitasking. When we’re doing (what feels like) a million things at once, we feel busy, and if we’re keeping busy at work, that’s a good thing, right? Unfortunately, not necessarily. Multitasking tricks us into believing we’re being more productive than we actually are.
When you constantly jump from one task to another, you run the risk of not actually getting a single thing done. You’ve just done a little bit of several tasks. How often do you reach the end of the day exhausted only to realize you haven’t been all that productive? Sure, you went to two meetings, responded to a dozen emails and Slack messages, helped out a coworker, and got started on a few different things, but tomorrow, each task will still be waiting for you.
The disadvantages of multitasking far outweigh any benefits, as multitasking can also have negative long-term consequences. Multitasking reduces our brain’s gray matter, leads to memory problems, increases chronic stress, and increases the risk of depression and social anxiety.
How to Break Your Multitasking Habits
Make Time for Focused Work
Time for deep, focused work that’s free from distractions won’t present itself without a little effort on your part.
In order to find this time, you must make a conscious effort to make it happen. Block specific times in your day and calendar for the tasks you truly need to put 100% of your attention on. Ensure you have no meetings, manage your notifications, and find or create a space where you can't be distracted.
This means snoozing Slack and either turning your phone notifications off or not having your phone nearby at all. If you work in a shared office, you may need to invest in noise-canceling headphones or put a note on your office door that says you are completing deep work, and should only be distrubed in an emergency. There’s a good chance most, if not all, of the situations you’d be interrupted for in a given day can wait until later or, better yet, tomorrow.
Managing distractions is easier said than done, as they are everywhere. Since we’re usually either working from our laptop or our smartphone, we can easily be distracted by a notification. How many times have you been hard at work only to be pinged by a notification? Before you know it, you’re responding to a Slack message from a coworker or telling your mom yes, you did in fact RSVP to your cousin’s wedding all by yourself.
Notifications are there to distract you. Don’t let them. Take the time to set limits and manage the notifications you receive. There’s no benefit to responding to every email and Slack message in real time, and doing so will prevent you from finding a groove. Manage your notifications so that you can eliminate distractions and intentionally choose where to place your focus.
The beauty of email is that it is a form of asynchronous communication, which means it is not expected that you respond as soon as you receive an email. If someone needs your attention right at that moment, they’ll call you.
If you struggle to manage distractions, you may need a website blocker to ensure you only have access to the websites and apps you need to complete your work.
Learn more in our guide: How to Manage Notifications and Reduce Distractions at Work.
Group Similar Tasks
Jumping from one task to the next prevents us from achieving deep focus, especially if these tasks differ in the type of focus they require. Our brains just aren’t wired that way!
Different tasks require different levels of focus and different abilities. Jumping from writing a proposal to responding to an email means our brain has to shift gears faster than it’s able to, which impedes our productivity and efficiency. When you group similar tasks, your brain doesn’t need to take time to adjust to a completely different kind of task. This saves time and enables us to more easily find a groove.
For example, block specific time for correspondence, including replying to emails, making phone calls, and answering Slack messages. Block separate time for tasks that require deep focus, such as problem solving or researching, and separate time for completing writing tasks.
Organizing your schedule in this intentional and thoughtful way is better for your brain, and it will help you become more efficient and productive.
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