Is Multitasking Actually Productive?

Written by Jeff Schmidt, SVP of Professional Development at RAB

We were having a nice relaxing dinner with friends. The conversation moved from weather, to COVID-19, to how are things going at work. It was a great conversation from what I remember. Then my wife, who’s very good at getting me back on track said, “Are you going to join us tonight?” Without knowing it, I had spent half the meal with these friends no really being with them; I was on my phone.

Multitasking has been a corporate buzzword for years. In a quest to climb the corporate ladder to stay ahead of peers, we “have to have” the latest technology. We are proud to tell our bosses we’re available 24/7. What we’re really doing is increasing stress and decreasing productivity.

In my experience, multitasking is the single biggest killer of productivity and personal development. I now believe that a singular focus is the only way to be most productive.

Allesandro Acquisti, a professor of IT and psychologist Eyal Peer at Carnegie Mellon University, constructed an experiment designed to measure the brain power lost when somone is interrupted:

“To simulate the pull of an expected cellphone, call or email, we had subjects sit in a lab and perform a standard cognitive skill test. In the experiment, 136 subjects were asked to read a short passage and answer questions about it. There were three groups of subjects; one merely completed the test. The other two were told they ‘might be contacted for further instructions’ at any moment via instant message.”

During the first test, the second and third groups were interrupted twice. During the second test, only the second group was interrupted. The third group awaited an interruption that never came.

To say the results were troublesome would be an understatement. Both of the interrupted groups correctly answered 20 percent less often than members of the control group, meaning interruptions made them 20 percent “dumber”.

Here are five ways I’ve found to improve focus:

  1. Put your phone down. When you’re with people, focus on the people.
  2. Prioritize your to-do list. Start with the highest priority and move on only when you have completed that task. Don’t give other tasks mental real estate.
  3. Turn off your email. Don’t even have email open if you want to stay focused. Schedule time to look at email when you want.
  4. Turn off all notifications. Technology is great, or not. I can get notified (interrupted) when someone posts a new Tweet or Facebook post. I can get notified (interrupted) when an email comes in. I can get notified (interrupted) when a program on my computer needs updating, and the list goes on and on. Stop letting your technology manage you.
  5. Take breaks to clear your mind and think. Some of my best ideas come at 3 a.m. Why? Because I have no other distractions, nothing else crowding my mind. Adult educators will tell you that adults can pay attention for only 90 minutes at a time. Schedule a five-minute mental break a few times throughout the day to just sit and daydream. You’ll find your best solutions will come at those times.

Peter Bregman wrote a book called 18 Minutes. He says: “We don’t actually multitask. We switch-task. And it’s inefficient, unproductive, and sometimes even dangerous. Resist the temptation.”

Want to be more productive? Want to get more things done? Stop trying to do them all at once. Prioritize and do tasks one at a time.

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