Multitasking is something that has been sold to us as a great thing, a way to be more productive and get more done in less time. The truth, however, is something quite different. Our brains can only focus on one thing at a time, so when you think you are multitasking, you are actually switching your attention between the multiple tasks over and over. The first problem is that this makes your brain tired and uses more energy over the same period of time as doing a single task. This creates fatigue at a quicker pace, leaving you with less brainpower later in the day when you want to still be going strong.
The second problem is that multitasking, or task switching as it should more accurately be called, doesn’t save you time. It takes on average 50% more time to do a task when switching attention back and forth than if you focused on a single task to completion. And the time it takes to complete a task continues to increase as you add more distractions that can cause you to switch your focus, such as your phone lighting up with a text, your email dinging as a new message arrives, or a coworker stops by for a quick chat or question.
This is compounded by the third problem of multitasking–the amount of time it takes for you to refocus on the primary task and get back to where you left off after an interruption or task switch. Every time you shift your attention off the task at hand, it takes longer and longer to get back to the place in your work on the primary task from where you left off, if you can get back there at all. With all these problems racking up time and energy, why would we want to multitask?
The key to real productivity is focus. Research indicates that the optimal focused work period is 90 minutes. As in, you spend 90 minutes focused on a key task, or finish the task to completion, whichever comes first. If you are like me, you might wonder how in the world you are going to get 90 minutes of uninterrupted focus time once in a day, let alone multiple blocks of this focus time! There are some simple fixes you can initiate, such as turning off your phone and email alerts, closing out all distracting programs on your computer, indicating on your office or cubicle entry that you are focusing and are not to be disturbed, and communicating to the other people in your environment what you are doing.
You may also start with a 15 minute block of focus time on a single task, working up to the larger time blocks. The key is to give up the idea that multitasking is helpful, and to work on focusing your attention on a single task at a time. What are you going to focus on next?