There’s a good chance you’re reading this while in the middle of doing something else. With advancing technology and a nearly constant barrage of emails, texts, notifications, and attention-grabbing websites, people are increasingly resorting to multitasking as they juggle work, family, friends, and personal well-being.
Although multitasking may seem like an effective tool to increase productivity, the reality is that multitasking often has the opposite effect. Multitasking not only fails to increase productivity but can also make your performance less efficient, leave you feeling overwhelmed and even lower your attention span.
But fear not: Understanding why multitasking derails productivity can pave the way to developing effective productivity habits.
The Problem with Multitasking
Numerous studies have shown that for the vast majority of people, multitasking impairs performance on all but the simplest of tasks. The reason for this is that our brains need time to shift between tasks because they have different cognitive requirements. Researchers Joshua Rubinstein, David Meyer, and Jeffrey Evans have argued that switching tasks requires two processes: goal switching (choosing to switch tasks) and rule activation (activating the cognitive “rules” of the new task and deactivating the old rules). Depending on the task, these processes can take a significant amount of time. In some cases, it can take up to 25 minutes to fully resume a task after being interrupted.
By now you’re hopefully convinced that multitasking is a bad habit that should typically be avoided, but an important question remains: How can you be more productive and manage your time more effectively?
One key to avoiding the temptation of multitasking and staying productive is to minimize distractions. This requires a personal touch and mindfulness, as you’ll need to figure out your unique “distraction triggers.”
What do you find yourself gravitating toward when you should be focused on the task at hand? For many nowadays it’s their smartphone, so a good first step can be setting your phone to silent mode, putting it across the room, or even—gasp—turning it off. Whatever your go-to distractions are, try to create an environment where your access to these distractions is minimized or eliminated altogether.
Of course, not all distractions are a waste of time. This is where multitasking once again rears its ugly head, as people may be tempted to shift from their current task to, for instance, check their work email. This is where effective planning comes into play.
Stay Organized to Stay Productive
Sometimes it seems like there’s too much to do and too little time to do it, so we overreach and juggle multiple tasks at once, which—as we know by now—is a recipe for disaster. One of the best ways to avoid this is by effective planning, and a well-designed planner can be instrumental in accomplishing this.
Figure out what you need to accomplish on a daily, weekly and monthly basis and plan it out. Use your long-term goals to help shape your daily and weekly goals. For daily tasks, devote specific chunks of time to single tasks. This can help you avoid the temptation to work on something else when it’s not the designated time to do so.
Keep in mind that regardless of how well-organized you are, you’re not a machine. You will occasionally need breaks if you want to maintain efficiency. When you feel burned out on a task, it’s important to take an actual break, even for just a couple minutes, rather than switching to another task during that time. Taking a breather will re-energize you much more effectively than checking your Facebook notifications.
Go with the Flow
Another benefit to focusing on one task at a time is that it provides an opportunity for us to reach what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chick-sent-me-hi-ee”) has dubbed a state of “ flow.” Simply put, being in a state of flow means being fully engaged in your current task to the point where nothing else seems to matter. It’s akin to being “in the zone.” Everyone has likely experienced this state at some point, but it can be increasingly difficult to attain in a world of increasing distractions.
Crucially, one must avoid distractions and multitasking to have any chance of achieving flow. Effectively planning your day and scheduling chunks of time for individual tasks can make all the difference. By removing the distraction of other tasks—because you know you will get to them later—you can allow yourself to become fully immersed in whatever you’re doing in this moment.
Achieve More by Doing Less
It may seem counterintuitive, but the key to achieving more is to do less at any given moment. Juggling multiple tasks can lead you to do worse at those tasks. After taking full advantage of a planner and focusing on one task at a time, you’ll wonder why multitasking ever seemed like a good idea.
Author byline: James R. Liddle is a technical writer and a freelance writer/copy editor. He earned a master’s degree in experimental psychology—with a focus on evolutionary psychology—from Florida Atlantic University in 2014. He has published over a dozen articles in peer-reviewed journals, including Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Review of General Psychology, and Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science. He is also the Senior Editor of The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology and Religion published by Oxford University Press. He has 7 years of experience copy editing manuscripts for the online academic journal Evolutionary Psychology, for which he served as Production Manager for 2 years.