Are you trying to accomplish several tasks at once? Answering an email and listening to a colleague simultaneously? Or trying to speak on the phone while driving (which is not allowed by the way). Or your child comes in and asks you to tie their shoe laces while you’re trying to make dinner. You stir the frying pan with one hand and tie the kid’s shoe laces with the other. Recent neuroscience shows us that we are lousy at multitasking. We just can’t concentrate on more than one thing at a time.
What’s even worse is that every time you try multitasking it takes 25 minutes on average for your brain to get back to the old task every time you are interrupted. That’s quite a lot of time just to get back to that email when you are interrupted.
Being able to multitask is a requirement at many workplaces nowadays. I would suggest we called it shift tasking instead, since no-one is really multitasking in reality. The only thing that happens is that we shift between tasks since we can’t concentrate on more than one thing at a time. This isn’t good for your health. Even if you think you are actually doing multiple things at the same time, your brain can’t concentrate on more than one thing, so your focus is divided in the amount of tasks at hand, leading to the result that none of the tasks are properly done.
A small exercise to prove multitasking is not the way
To prove my point, I would like you to do a little step-by-step exercise with me.
- Take a piece of paper and a pen and fold the paper in half. Unfold.
- On each half of the paper, write down the sentence: MULTITASKING IS A TIME THIEF.
- Draw two lines on each half of the paper, right under the sentence you just wrote. You are going to be writing on these lines in a moment.
The exercise, first half:
- Set a timer.
- Now I want you to copy the sentence you wrote, but only one letter at a time. In between writing each letter I want you to write numbers from 1, 2, 3 and so on for each letter. So you start with M, shift to the next line and write 1. Then you can go back up and write the letter U from the sentence, and shifting to the next row to write 2 and so on. If you do it correctly, you should have the numbers 1-24 written on the second row when you’re finished.
- Note the time it took for you to complete the exercise.
Now it’s time for the next half of the exercise.
- Go to the second half of the paper.
- Set the timer again.
- Start writing the sentence again, but this time you get to write the whole sentence at once.
- Write the numbers 1-24 on the second row, all at once.
- Note the time.
Hopefully, you could accomplish the second part of the exercise at a faster speed. About 30% faster I guess.
Multitasking at work
What does this tell us? Although this was quite a simple task, you could notice that you had a much harder time concentrating on the first part of the task, right?
So what happens when you are at work and you have several advanced tasks ahead of you and you get interrupted all the time? Chances are you have a hard time getting back to what you did, and not a single one of the tasks you shift between are done properly. Multitasking is one of the least effective ways to get things done. You can’t concentrate on one thing at a time, which leads to you not doing anything really well.
Turn off your notifications
Emails are a huge part of the workday for many of us. As I have discussed in a previous post, emails are a big time thief when it comes to concentrating on one task at a time. To get notifications every time we receive a new email takes focus from what we are doing, even if we don’t open the email. We know it’s there, and the full focus is lost. So the first thing you could do in your fight against multitasking is to turn off the notifications. This goes for all your social media as well. I dare you! Try to turn all your notifications off for at least one day. This way you can focus on the person you are talking to without getting interrupted all the time.
The next thing is to schedule email processing time. Make this into a daily routine and you will be used to it in a week. Twice a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. This can be hard to do at first, but believe me, this will save loads of time for you, and you will feel less distracted and less stressed out during the day. Plus you will have plenty of time to accomplish the other tasks at hand, mindfully and with complete focus.
Get some privacy
If you have an office, shut the door while working. This might seem rude to some co-workers. Simply explain to them that you just want to do your job as effectively as you can, and they will understand you. You will have plenty of time to chat after the work is done. If you don’t have an office, wear earphones to let people know that you want some privacy.
Set a deadline
Estimate the time frame you need to accomplish a task. This way you can get a clear picture of the tasks you have ahead of you and how many you can actually accomplish that day. When making this a routine, you are going to get more precise at estimating the amount of time you need for a specific task.
Mindfulness is your friend
When you begin to do one thing at a time and really focus on that thing while doing it, your mind starts to change. You feel happier and more content. You feel connected in a new way. This goes for all the things you do during a day. When you do the dishes, try to focus. Feel the water against your skin, hear the sounds. If someone comes in to interrupt you, tell them that you are doing the dishes right now, and that you are happy to contribute to whatever they want after your’e finished.
I hope this article was an inspiration for you to start living a more mindful life with less multitasking.