For some time now, there has been growing discussion about the concept of multi-tasking, and whether or not this once-lauded workstyle is, in fact, counterproductive.
During the initial integration of computers and the web into our work environments, multi-tasking was the trend and buzzword du jour. Suddenly, we were able to make a phone call, send a fax, compose an email, and (very slowly) conduct research online all at once. But tech advances and smartphones extended the influence of multi-tasking beyond the office walls—eventually creating an expectation that we should apply this mentality not only at work and at home, but in our every waking moment.
As multi-tasking became the standard of our everyday lives, the concept lost meaning. What once referred to judicious use of our time now symbolized a nebulous form of distraction that imposed constant interruptions upon us. Translation: It’s annoying. Worse than that, it has cost us productivity—and hurt our businesses.
Multi-tasking Reduces Productivity
Although some types of multi-tasking (like walking and chewing bubblegum) are totally fine, taskswitching that requires higher levels of brainpower takes its toll on efficiency.
As a Drexel University study stated:
“Task interruptions lead to a decrease in primary-task performance, most notably in terms of a resumption lag representing the additional time needed to resume the primary task after interruption.”
Oh, cruel irony of taskswitching! Although we may feel like we are getting more done, we lose time during this task shift. We also deplete our reserves of energy and focus, resulting in simple oversights. If we reclaimed all the time in the world spent sending “Oops, forgot attachment!” emails, we could probably stop for a universal Coke and a smile right now. Not to mention that embarrassing “Reply All” incident (you remember the one).
Although individuals may have begun to recognize this incongruence, it often takes our larger systems a little longer to shift ideals.
Dave Crenshaw, the author of The Myth of Multitasking, summed up the dilemma employers face to Lifehacker nicely:
“The large companies working on the problem are only in the very preliminary stages of attacking this issue. Most small businesses aren’t even aware of the source of the problem. In general, companies recognize they have productivity issues, but are unsure as to how to proceed.”
And, even though we can see that multi-tasking may not be the right option when employed full time, there are occasions during which it is appropriate and necessary.
So how do we balance existing expectations and the needs of our roles with a desire to return to more focused task completion? And how do we find the right blend of task management styles for us?
Set Some Boundaries
Enjoy the Silence
Take power over the interruptions and distractions of push notifications and alerts on your mobile devices and computers. Try silencing them during key tasks, or disabling push notifications altogether. Companies can implement communication hierarchies to manage expectations and avoid delays—for example, a protocol to use instant messaging as opposed to emailing when immediate attention is needed. This way, critical items are attended to, but we needn’t react like Pavlov’s dogs a hundred times a day whenever something vibrates or dings.
Work in Batches
Create space for specific tasks and dedicate your full attention to them during this period. Instead of constantly monitoring your inbox and replying continuously in a slow drip of distraction, try designating set times of day for Emailing. Twice a day, once an hour—whatever works for you. Complete like tasks together, however long it takes, instead of switching back and forth and sacrificing your momentum.
Give Yourself a Timeout
Alternately, you can try setting predetermined blocks of time for each task, moving on when the interval is up to prevent time-sucking tasks from draining your day.
Set aside an hour for returning phone calls. Devote the last twenty minutes of each day to scheduling meetings and organizing your calendar. Spend your morning locked in your office completing blog posts and social media, then move on. Free timers like e.ggtimer make it easy to try this approach, which offers an added bonus—completing unpleasant tasks is much easier when we are reminded that they’re finite!
Spend some time finding the perfect balance, and you’ll be increasingly productive—while enjoying greater peace of mind.
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