Want to become more productive? Stop multitasking.

by | Jun 5, 2013 | Focus

Takeaway: Multitasking makes you less productive, and you should create strategies to resist the urge to multitask, like minimizing distractions and checking your email on a schedule.

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes, 15s.

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According to a recent study, when you multitask, you are not being more productive – you just feel more emotionally satisfied from your work.1 That’s why multitasking is so fun. You feel like you’re getting a lot done because you jump between a large number of things, but you’re really being less productive than if you just focused on one thing at a time.

“If you’re, say, trying to listen to someone one the phone while typing an email”, says cognitive psychologist David Meyer at the University of Michigan, “something has to give”.2

There are a ton of impacts multitasking has on your productivity. Here are five of the main ones I’ve come across:

  1. It makes you more prone to errors, because you devote less focus to all of the balls you’re trying to juggle at one time. When you do more than one thing at once, you don’t focus on anything to your full capacity.
  2. It actually takes longer. When you switch from one activity to another, it takes time “to re-immerse your mind in one topic or another”.3 These are called “switching costs”, and you incur them every time you switch from one task to another.
  3. It severely affects your performance. For one example, in a study with young students, multitasking led “to spottier, shallower, less flexible learning”.4
  4. It affects your memory. Studies have shown that when you try to focus on too many things at one time, you are less likely to be able to differentiate between what’s important and what isn’t.5 Maybe that’s why you forgot why you just walked into the kitchen.
  5. It adds stress to your life. Your electronics should exist for your convenience; not the convenience of everyone else in the world. Allowing other people to shatter your focus by constantly interrupting you may be stimulating and entertaining, but it will make you less productive since you have less control over your environment.

From everything I’ve read, multitasking will almost always make you less productive. That said, there are a few tips to

  • Only multitask with simple, habitual tasks, like doing the dishes while you listen to a podcast. This is because your mind can lean on your habits to get the mechanical stuff done while your mind focuses on something more productive.
  • Minimize distractions. Technology “creates a major expansion of the targets for your focus and a potential drain on its finite resources”.6 By minimizing the distractions around you (instant messaging alerts, text message vibrations, email notifications, and so on), you can improve your focus and become better at unitasking.
  • Meditate. Meditation works out your “attention muscle”, which lets you focus better on the task at hand when you’re trying to unitask. I wrote a comprehensive guide on how to use meditation to become more productive here.
  • Check your email on a schedule. Especially if you receive a high volume of email, checking it on a schedule means that you won’t be inundated with alerts and notifications all day. People can wait an hour or two for a response.
  • Know that your brain can’t actually multitask. You may feel like you’re doing more than one thing at once, “but what you’re really doing is switching back and forth between activities”.7 According to one brain researcher, “there are fundamental biological limits to what the brain can pay attention to. This is a problem built into the brain”.
  • Music is a-okay. According to Stanford professor Clifford Nass, music is “a little different. We have a special part of our brain for music, so we can listen to music while we do other things”.

It’s very difficult to stop multitasking – every day I have the urge to check my email, twitter feeds, and text messages when I’m doing something productive (like writing this blog post), just for the emotional stimulation it will give me. That said, I think it’s worth pushing back against it in the end because of how much more productive it makes you.

This post is a part of Focus Week. To see a listing of the other articles I’ve posted this week, click here!

  1. Source: http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/multitask.htm 

  2. Source: RAPT, by Winifred Gallagher. 

  3. Source: http://redtape.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/05/18/18322435-students-cant-resist-distraction-for-two-minutes-and-neither-can-you?lite 

  4. Source: http://anniemurphypaul.com/2013/05/the-epidemic-of-media-multitasking-while-learning/# 

  5. Source: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/august24/multitask-research-study-082409.html 

  6. Source: RAPT, by Winifred Gallagher. 

  7. Source: RAPT, by Winifred Gallagher. 

Written by Chris Bailey

Chris Bailey has written hundreds of articles on the subject of productivity and is the author of three books: How to Calm Your Mind, Hyperfocus, and The Productivity Project. His books have been published in more than 40 languages. Chris writes about productivity on this site and speaks to organizations around the globe on how they can become more productive without hating the process.

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