Sometimes it feels like there just aren’t enough hours in the day.
For some of us, that means setting our alarm extra early to squeeze in a 6am workout before a big day at the office. For others, it means staying back late after hours or even taking our laptop home to try and get through our ambitious to-do lists before the end of the week. With so many priorities to juggle in work and life, trying to multi-task and tackle them all at once can feel like the only option.
Spoiler alert: multi-tasking could be what is stopping you from hitting your productivity goals. In fact, psychologists have been researching the impact of switching tasks on productivity for decades.
The act of task-switching and juggling multiple priorities at once have been shown by researchers to cause negative impacts in the speed and accuracy of our work, causing as much as a 40% reduction in productivity.
In today’s fast-paced world, it’s almost inevitable that we’ll all dabble in multi-tasking every now and again. However, to optimise your time and to really get into the zone, it’s important to work towards reducing multi-tasking behaviour in work and life.
To help get you started, we’ve created the ultimate guide to understanding the impact of multi-tasking on productivity and identified five practical strategies to help you ditch multi-tasking for good.
What is multi-tasking?
Before we dive into how to kick multi-tasking to the curb, let’s uncover what multi-tasking behaviour is all about.
In a nutshell, multi-tasking involves working on a number of different tasks at the same time. This act of switching between multiple tasks involves quickly shifting our attention from one task to the next, which can serve to heighten feelings of stress, mental fatigue and even anxiety.
Next time you’re at your desk, reflect on how you get through your to-do list. Do you jump straight into your inbox and begin firing off responses to emails? Maybe you make a few calls and simultaneously check the analytics for that big project you’ve been working on? Or perhaps you try to write a clear list of tasks, but seem to always find yourself pulled away into meetings and urgent client calls? Although unexpected tasks will always arise at work, multi-tasking can add further strain to your work day by depleting your energy, focus and attention span.
The truth is, most of us can’t actually perform a number of tasks at once, making multi-tasking a matter of distorted perception. As much as we might believe we’re getting ahead by answering emails while on a conference call, it’s almost impossible to complete both tasks simultaneously without making a mistake or two.
How does multi-tasking impact productivity?
Now that we understand a bit more about what multi-tasking is, let’s explore the impact of this behaviour on our overall productivity.
Over the past few decades, numerous researchers and psychologists have investigated the link between multi-tasking and productivity. These studies look at the way our brain processes information and what happens when we try to complete multiple tasks at once.
In a recent study by scientists at the Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (INSERM) in Paris, multi-tasking caused study participants to forget nearly half of the tasks they were asked to perform plus caused an increase in the number of mistakes made.
This is due to the stress multi-tasking places on the brain. When we work on multiple tasks at once, the right and left sides of our prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain associated with focus and concentration) is split between these competing tasks and unable to work at its full capacity. By dividing the power of our brain through multi-tasking, we’re reducing our chances of completing work accurately and productively.
Clearly, multi-tasking seriously hinders our ability to succeed at work. But, what other negative consequences are caused by trying to juggle multiple tasks at once? The negative impacts of multi-tasking can include:
- Decreases in long-term memory
- Increased chance of distractability
- Increased likelihood of stress and anxiety
- Lower quality and efficiency at work
- Lack of focus and concentration.
Now that we’ve uncovered the impact of multi-tasking on productivity, how can we shift our behaviour to optimise our time at work? Keep reading to discover our top 5 productivity tips to beat multi-tasking.
Productivity tip 1: Write a to-do list
This first tip might sound obvious, but it can be one of the most underrated productivity tips. To reduce your chances of falling down a multi-tasking rabbit hole, start your day by writing a clear to-do list. Writing effective to-do lists is one of the best productivity habits you can develop as it enables you to focus on what’s most important based on urgency and priority.
However, not all to-do lists are created equal. In fact, many of us are sabotaging our chances of productivity and success by writing to-do lists that are designed to fail. So, what does an effective to-do list include? Some essential criteria for a good to-do list includes:
- Ordering tasks based on urgency and importance
- Batching similar tasks together to enter deeper states of concentration
- Making each task clear, specific and measurable
- Leaving extra time for any urgent or unexpected tasks that may arise during the day.
Productivity tip 2: Identify your working style
Take a look around your office. Every single person sitting beside you has a unique working style. In some cases, a co-worker’s preferred way of working may be obvious. They might be the social butterfly that knows (and celebrates) everyone’s birthday, runs the office social events and always suggests running group brainstorm sessions to tackle a tricky project. Or perhaps they’re a quiet achiever who likes to dive deep into complex tasks on their own and comes to meetings thoroughly prepared with detailed notes and suggestions.
In fact, you too have your own unique working style. One of the best strategies for beating multi-tasking and boosting your productivity is to identify your working style. There are countless online quizzes and questionnaires you can take to find out what category you fall into.
Some of the most popular working style quizzes include:
- The DiSC Behaviour Inventory: one of the oldest work personality quizzes that helps identify your professional behaviour style and how you work as part of a team
- Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator: although not exclusively a work-related test, this popular quiz helps identify which of the 16 personality types fits you best
- Crystal Test: this free online quiz helps you discover how your personality type impacts the personal and professional relationships you form with others.
Productivity tip 3: Organise your workspace
Did you know that the environment around us can have a major impact on our mood and productivity?
For those who struggle to stay focused, taking some time to organise your workspace can have huge benefits to your levels of concentration at the office. In fact, a recent UK study found that 40 per cent of respondents identified a messy workspace as a key factor that had a negative impact on their productivity at work (with 20 per cent believing a messy desk actually added to their work and mental load).
If you’re struggling to stay on track and constantly find yourself feeling overwhelmed and flustered, consider re-organising your workspace. Start by cleaning up any rubbish and washing up any used mugs, plates or bowls. Next, file away any loose paperwork into filing cabinets or folders and store away unused books or stationery that you don’t need on a regular basis. By clearing the clutter off your desk and removing visible mess, you’ll be less likely to become distracted by the space around you and will be more likely to stay on track throughout your workday.
Productivity tip 4: Take control of your notifications
How many times do you check your phone at work? For most of us, responding to the pings and alerts that pop up on our phone is how we go about our day. From emails to text messages and even bank alerts, pop-up notifications are a nightmare for those trying to beat multi-tasking. Why? Because these alerts pull you away from the deep work you are trying to do and can divert your attention towards an unrelated (and often irrelevant) task.
To give yourself the best chance of staying focused at work, make sure you switch off all unnecessary pop-up notifications on both your phone and computer. Another strategy can be to switch your phone to ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode, particularly when you have an important task that needs your full attention.
By changing these settings, you’ll be able to eliminate the chances of unwanted distractions to ensure you don’t end up scrolling your way through social media when you should be writing that end of month report.
Productivity Tip 5: Schedule realistic breaks
Although it might sound counter-intuitive, setting aside time for breaks throughout your day is essential to avoid multi-tasking. Why? Because we all need a chance to pause and refresh before moving from one important task to the next.
By working in 60 to 90-minute blocks, you’ll be able to get through large chunks of deep work while also leaving yourself the chance to step away from your desk to get a breath of fresh air at regular points throughout the day.
This productivity tip comes back to crafting a good to-do list and the importance of scheduling tasks based on priority. A good strategy to avoid multi-tasking is to block out your calendar based on your to-do list. For example, if you have three big pieces of work to do, mark your calendar with these tasks to ensure you don’t end up in unnecessary meetings that might pop up throughout the day.
This article was written by Lucinda Starr and originally published on A Girl In Progress.