Blog: Business & Entrepreneurship
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Why Multitasking Hurts Your Productivity

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown SEO.

It’s a fact that we each have the same 24 hours in a day.

Some people seem to get more done in those 24 hours than others do.

We see people use different systems for organizing their day, and squeezing more out of it.

We try different systems then quickly abandon them. We read more articles about productivity, because it makes us feel busy, but it doesn’t get us closer to our goals.

Worst of all, we end up multitasking, because we believe that is the One True Way for getting things done. And as a small business owner, I can testify it is easy to fall into this trap.

But what I’ve found is when I multitask, I’m actually just less focused on a whole bunch of different tasks, instead of just one. I end up making mental errors because my brain is scattered, trying to process several items at once. I end up doing all of them less than perfect.

Now, every person is different, and what works well for me, might not work well for you. But being mentally present for each thing you’re doing, and doing one thing at a time, can actually allow you to get more done than when you try to cram three different tasks into the same moment.

Why Multitasking Is Inefficient

A 2001 study by the American Psychological Association found that multitasking actually reduces task efficiency, and is especially hard on cognitive resources (brain power) when switching to difficult or unfamiliar tasks. Behavioral psychologist Dr. Susan Weinschenk says we lose up to 40% of our productivity when we multitask.

The reason is our brain isn’t actually multitasking, it is task switching, with each task switch taking from one-tenth to one-half of a second.

Task switching actually involves four areas of the brain. The pre-frontal cortex is in charge of where our attention goes, and audits which task to do next. The posterior parietal lobe controls the rules for each new task you add to your load.

Your anterior cingulate gyrus scans your work for errors, while the pre-motor cortex prepares you for movement and action.

Multitasking is an illusion. Your brain shifts each time you introduce a new task to juggle.

The High (Cognitive) Cost Of Doing Modern Business

Professor Gloria Mark did an interruption study of office workers and found that office workers, on average, task switch every 3 minutes and 5 seconds. Dr. Mark found that switching activities within the same theme or project did not cause as much cognitive loss, but still happened about every 10 and a half minutes.

The type of profession did not have a significant impact on the average time between task switching. All knowledge workers seemed to fall within a three to four-minute range of having to shift to something different.

These brain shifts also cost you the benefits of long, prolonged focus.

I argue that when people are switching contexts every 10 and half minutes they can’t possibly be thinking deeply. There’s no way people can achieve flow. When I write a research article, it takes me a couple of hours before I can even begin to think creatively. If I was switching every 10 and half minutes, there’s just no way I’d be able to think deeply about what I’m doing. This is really bad for innovation. When you’re on the treadmill like this, it’s just not possible to achieve flow.
— Dr. Gloria Mark

Getting Stuff Done Without Multitasking

So what to do about your workflow? In a sprawling open office environment, dealing with interruptions or task shifting is difficult. But if you have some control over your workday, here are ways you can move away from multitasking and get more done.

One Thing At A Time

When we multitask, we are not fully mentally present for any of the things we are working on. If we embrace the fact that we can only effectively do one thing at a time, the rest of this philosophy makes sense. Here are the benefits of focusing on one thing at a time.

You will be less stressed, because you’re not simultaneously worrying about one task while attempting to complete another.

You will do better work, because your brain isn’t trying to process five different things at once.

Schedule Your Time

Your day is like a container. It has a finite amount of space. Without a plan of how to manage that space, it gets filled up by requests from others and our to-do list. This leaves us little time to do the million things that we know we should be doing.

An effective way to combat this “time creep” is to only plan on doing so many tasks in a day. Three large tasks is usually a good metric to aim for. You can add little tasks to this list, so long as the priority rated tasks get done first.

Estimate how long each item on your list will take to finish. Map your day out according to this estimate. “Time-box” each thing that needs doing, and give yourself enough extra time to complete your list, in case something goes wrong.

Schedule Business Calls

For a lot of businesses, there are two kinds of relevant calls that come in: customer calls and business calls. Customer calls are usually sales related, and spontaneous. These cannot be scheduled. Examples include people asking directions to your store or if an item is in stock.

Business calls may be from vendors, suppliers, or colleagues. These can be scheduled, so your focus isn’t broken up, and you can be fully present when talking to these key people.

It is difficult to have an off-the-cuff business conversation and be fully focused. Maintaining a singular focus on your tasks is the key to getting them done. Breaking up tasks with unscheduled phone calls breaks your concentration and short-changes the phone call.

Not all phone calls go into this bucket. Having some sort of automation for customer calls, whether that is an answering machine or administrative assistant, reduces how many times your day is broken up.

Momentum Is Everything

Shifting gears is hard. The tasks that get done are the ones that aren’t interrupted by other tasks or distractions. Having a few big goals each day means you can work on those relentlessly, and not worry about smaller tasks. When you start thinking about the other small tasks you need to do, just remember there is a time you have set aside to deal with those, and hey can wait while you focus on the task at hand.

Eliminate Distractions

Working on any sort of computer can be a source of distraction. Sometimes you may open Facebook, Twitter or email, just to see what is there. Some folks describe this as the Fear Of Missing Out. Once you open YouTube or Facebook, it is soooo easy to get sucked into what’s going on there, that an hour slips by unnoticed.

If you are working on something that is a major priority, put your phone on vibrate, close your email and social media tabs, and just immerse yourself in what you need to do. You’ll find that once you get flowing on the task in front of you, you forget that you even have social media or email to check.

Don’t Sacrifice Communication For Other Tasks

Many workers name email as their #1 source of frustration with their work. There is always an endless onslaught of messages rolling into our inbox. This leads to many of them going unanswered for long stretches of time, because different people have different prioritization for different types of email.

While many people I respect are more ruthless about answering email, as in, they won’t answer a lot of it, I feel differently about it/.

For myself, answering email is something that you should do in a timely manner, if you’re going to do it at all. This doesn’t mean you should answer spam solicitations for services, but it does mean that you should leave whatever time is appropriate in each day to communicate like a human being.

While not everyone will agree with me, I believe in answering any email that I’m going to read within one business day. No one like to be left hanging, and putting off responding to email doesn’t make your inbox get smaller.

I also think it’s a good idea to purge your email subscriptions every so often. Many of us have dozens (if not hundreds) of email newsletters we are signed up to that generate email we will never read. Every newsletter is by law required to have an Unsubscribe link somewhere. These are usually in the bottom of the email somewhere, in very tiny print. Jettison anything you aren’t reading or getting value from, and your inbox will get a lot tidier.

What’s Your Take On Multitasking?

What is your experience with multitasking? Have you changed your workflow recently? If so, what were the results?

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown SEO.

2 comments on “Why Multitasking Hurts Your Productivity

  1. This post speaks true to my current situation lol. I always find myself wanting to accomplish more by doing more, in return adding more to my plate that I can’t handle.

    I am trying to schedule my time more, I find it a bit helpful to have a mental preparation of what I’m going to be doing, versus just acting on the next task that gets thrown my way =)

    1. I try to limit myself to three big tasks per day, and I try to focus on one at a time. The more stuff I attempt to do a once, the more stuff I end up doing half-assed.

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