If you’re multitasking, you’re just wasting your time

  • By Monika Kristofferson Office Efficiency
  • Wednesday, January 30, 2013 1:55pm

In an effort to squeeze more time out of your busy day, do you find yourself trying to knock out two or three tasks at one time? Perhaps you’re regularly doing the “task tango” by typing an email, listening to your voicemail and pulling up a Google search at the same time. The more you can do at once, the more productive you’ll be, right?

I’ve got a big secret to share with you. Multitasking is a productivity myth; it’s really just an illusion. I’ll take it one step further by saying multitasking doesn’t actually exist, at least not the way we typically think about it.

Our brains are not actually designed to perform two tasks at once, such as typing an email while talking to a co-worker. The multitasking we mere mortals are capable of are bodily functions such as breathing while our hearts continue to beat. So, when we are busy trying to do two or three tasks at once, what we are actually doing is called “switch tasking.” Our brains are moving so rapidly between tasks, we experience the illusion of doing them at the exact same time.

So, what’s the problem if you feel like you’re getting a lot done? Well, multitasking can produce the opposite result we want because multitasking can reduce productivity. When your brain has to switch very quickly between activities, there are a couple of things that can go wrong. First, you have a better chance of making a mistake, which is going to mean a do-over, which translates into even more of a time suck. Secondly, there’s a much greater chance that you aren’t going to retain the information as readily as if you had concentrated solely on your task at hand. This could mean having to going back to reread information, again, taking up more of your valuable time.

Now, a little less counterproductive to your productivity goals is “background tasking.” This is when you perform two or more tasks, but only one task requires any real mental effort on your part. For example, writing an email while listening to Pandora and making copies on your printer. The only task really requiring mental effort is writing the email. The rest is just happening in the background.

Do you think this is where I’ll say you should eliminate all multitasking? Well, I won’t say that. I realize that in today’s busy work environment, multitasking and background tasking happen. Instead, I’ll share three solutions to help you work with multitasking.

First, simply be aware of the times that you are multitasking and remind yourself that you’re decreasing your efficiency. Ask yourself if this is the best way to handle your tasks at this time.

Next (here it goes), eliminate multitasking while you are working on your most critical tasks. This is the time to stay focused, stay alert and not make mistakes.

Finally, to see an amazing jump in productivity, aim to eliminate multitasking for 20 percent of your day, which is 96 minutes of an 8-hour work day. This is a great time to turn off email notifications, let your phone go to voicemail, turn off text tones, shut the door and work on your most critical tasks.

Have you ever worked in your office at a time of day when no one was around and you didn’t have any interruptions? Or maybe you had to wrap things up before vacation, so you shut the door and put your nose to the grindstone. I bet you knocked out a ton of work that day. If you eliminate multitasking and interruptions for just 96 minutes a day, you will see your productivity soar all the time, not just the day before vacation.

Monika Kristofferson is a professional organizer and productivity consultant who owns Efficient Organization NW in Lake Stevens. Reach her at 425-220-8905 or monika@efficientorganizationnw.com.

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