Why multitasking hurts productivity

As workloads increase and more becomes expected of us, we hear more and more about the importance of multitasking. For many of us, the idea that we need to multitask in order to truly be productive at work has become the norm.

Many of us are probably multitasking at our jobs right now.

It’s time to stop and here’s why…

The truth about multitasking

Here’s the thing: all that multitasking that we think is making us more productive? It actually isn’t. In fact, in recent years numerous studies have been done on multitasking and the findings have shown overwhelmingly that not only does multitasking not have the benefits we thought it did, but it can also have the exact opposite effect. 

The truth is that multitasking isn’t increasing our productivity, if anything it’s hurting it. 

Why it doesn’t work

The major reason why multitasking doesn’t really work is pretty simple. Well, it involves the way our brains work, which of course is anything but simple, but the basic answer boils down to the fact that our brains just don’t work that way.

In fact, it comes at a neurobiological cost.

In other words, the human brain, while capable of extraordinary things, simply isn’t designed to focus on multiple things at the same time.

The keyword here is focus.

Of course, the brain can do many things at the same time, but focusing on something is different. The whole reason we need to focus on a task is that it’s something complex enough to require your attention.

For example…

Take the old saying about someone not being able to walk and chew gum at the same time. While not very nice, the joke is that of course anyone can do these two things simultaneously. They’re both simple activities. 

For both, your brain can essentially go on autopilot. Now, say we change it to walking and listening to music at the same time, or better yet listening to a podcast or an audiobook. 

Even though we’ve added the obviously more complex task of listening to and processing information, you can still do it with relative ease because you’re only engaged in one task that actually requires focus. Now, imagine you’re trying to listen to a podcast or an audiobook, but instead of casually walking down a familiar street, you’re doing a particularly challenging obstacle course. 

How much of what you’re listening to do you think you’ll actually retain? Chances are, very little. Or, if you did retain it, would you even be able to do the obstacle course? Probably not.

Spreading yourself too thin

Once you have to engage in more than one task at a time that requires any kind of mental energy or focus, the possibility of doing either drops dramatically. 

At least one task will inevitably suffer.

You’re likely to either do a great job of one task and poorly on the other, or just mediocre at both. Not the outcome you’re going for.

How often you do something like this, especially at work.

While you surely have the best of intentions, you want to get ahead, you want to help others, you want to get more done, it can be doing more harm than good. 

Trying to force our admittedly wonderful brains to do two complex things at the same time is entirely counterproductive. 

You’re trying to split your mental energy between two things, which means even in a 50-50 split, each thing is only getting half of your attention (less, of course, the more tasks you add).

The enemy of high-quality, productive work

We’ve all experienced being “in the groove” or “in the zone” at work. You’re firing on all cylinders and really getting work done. And not just any work, good work. 

It’s a great feeling and one we understandably seek to replicate as often as possible. But, here’s the thing, that never happens as a result of multitasking. 

By dividing your focus, you’re actively preventing that from happening. 

So, what should we be doing instead? What is it that we’re doing on those occasions when we seem to be at our most productive?

You can still get multiple things done

It’s easy to say multitasking is the worst and it should be avoided at all costs but without a solution, it’s all just doom and gloom. After all, you still need to get all of that work done. 

So what’s the solution? 

Do things one after another, see something through to completion, celebrate the progress and move on to the next task. 

You’ll find yourself “in the zone” and achieving more rather than in the twilight zone lost and confused.

If your job involves completing a lot of different types of tasks, try to group as many similar ones together. Don’t just focus on one thing at a time, keep on track when you get on a roll and stay in the same mind frame from the previous task.

Don’t jump back and forth between things. You won’t be giving complex tasks the full attention they deserve and you’ll rob yourself of the ability to build any momentum in one direction or another.

That doesn’t mean hours of focus! Make sure you’re taking short breaks to reset or you’ll burn out.

Listen to music, read a book or get some sunshine and reward yourself for the hard work you’re doing.

Not only will you get more done, at a higher quality but your tasks are much less likely to drop off the map and be forgotten because you have so much going on.

Now we know the truth about multitasking, let’s go focus on our next task. We’ve got great things to accomplish.

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