The myth of multitasking: are you really getting more done?

"To do two things at once is to do neither"

What if I told you that multitasking was a lie?  

It is universally accepted as an effective thing to do and heck, people even put their multitasking skill on resumes because employers look for that in prospective hires!  The problem is that we've got it all wrong.

In 2009 Stanford University Professor, Clifford Nass set out to discover how well multitaskers were "multitasking".  He and his team of researchers gave 262 students questionnaires to determine how often they multitasked. The students were then divided into two groups of high and low multitaskers.  The hypothesis was that the multitaskers would perform better. The researchers were wrong. They were outperformed on every measure. To quote Nass, "Multitaskers were just lousy at everything". Researchers have gone on to clarify, obviously we can do things like walk and talk at the same time or fold laundry and watch TV; but, what we are unable to do is focus on more than one thing at a time, our attention has to switch back and forth between two tasks which require focus.  A perfect example for which I get yelled at all the time is trying to have a conversation and watch tv at the same time. Almost everyone has experienced the frustration of having to repeat themselves because the other person in the conversation has switched their focus back to the television and is no longer focusing on the conversation.

Research has shown that we lose about 20% of our time switching back and forth between focal points.  In other words, if paused the show on tv and you focused all of your attention on the first task, your conversation with your spouse, you could knock out the conversation in 10 minutes and go back to watching your show.  But if you leave the TV on and try to have the conversation as well, it could take 2,4, 6, 8, 10 minutes LONGER depending on how many times your focus switched back and forth during the conversation. This same principle applies to projects and tasks at work.  Say you have three projects that you are working on and each actually took about 4 hours of your focused attention to complete. If you worked on project A and didn't switch focus until the project was complete, you could finish the project before lunch. More often than not, the day goes like this:

  • Start out working on project A.

  • Your email chimes so you check and respond to the email.

  • Then the phone rings and you take the call and have to send another email related to that call.

  • Then you get back to project A.

  • Your friend texts you about a workshop she wants you to go to with her.  You go online to research the workshop, respond back that you will go.

  • Then you look at the clock and realize that you have to go to a meeting.

This more often than not makes us inefficient and frustrated that we did not complete as much as we had intended for the morning. Before  lunch you have switched between 5 different tasks. I listened to a podcast the other day where the guy who is a business couch broke it down into numbers that really made sense for me:

  • If you focus on one task or project you are 100% efficiently working towards its completion.

  • If you switch between two tasks you lose 20% efficiency switching between tasks and are only working with 40% efficiency towards completing each task.

  • If you switch between three tasks you lose 40% efficiency switching between tasks and are only working with 20% efficiency towards completing each task.

  • If you switch between four tasks you lose 60% efficiency switching between tasks and are only working with 10% efficiency towards completing each task.

  • If you switch between five tasks you lose 75% efficiency switching between tasks and are only working with 5% efficiency towards completing each task.

After seeing those numbers, I realized why it was taking me so long to achieve completion on my project list.   By setting a priority for the day and staying on that one task for a predetermined amount of time, I am able to complete the tasks on my to do list SO MUCH faster.  This in no way means that I don't do other things in my day, I still check email, return phone calls, text my friend back about the workshop, but I do this after I've completed the set amount of time for my one priority.   Some days I might have an hour, some days I might be able to commit 4 hours to my priority, but if I discipline myself to stick to my one task, I am astounded by how much more I am able to get done.

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