Could multitasking be exactly the wrong way to improve productivity and help us excel despite a hectic schedule?
For fifty years, future forecasters have predicted that increasing automation would allow us to kick back and relax more. In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that ’our grandchildren’ (and that should be us, right?) would have a three hour working day, and be able to choose how to use the rest of their time on earth for pleasure and more worthy aims.
The increased automation arrived, and yet our lives seem to be getting busier rather than more chilled out. Our productivity has not skyrocketed as the forecasters predicted. We have become expert multitaskers in response to the increased pressure from longer and more frantic working days but are not actually achieving more than we did back in the days before our hyper connected and automated lives.
Could that be because we are going about it all wrong? Is our reliance on multitasking actually contributing to our lack of productivity?
For the last 25 years, researchers have been trying to work out the best way to optimise productivity to help us cope with our ever more hectic lives. The research is startling.
Ditching your multitasking habit could improve your productivity by a massive 40%, and get you closer to the fifteen hour working week that was predicted back in the 30s.
See Also: 5 Essential Productivity Boosting Apps
What the research shows
A selection of the research into multitasking and productivity was summarised by the journal of the American Psychological Association. The overall picture, created by research spanning decades, shows that the human brain struggles to multitask.
When you think you are multitasking you are actually switching between tasks - although this might happen so quickly and subtly that you believe that you are focussing on two things at once. The fact is that multiple streams of thought, especially complex ones - simply can not be effectively processed in parallel by the brain.
The reason that multitasking can actually damage productivity is that there is time lost for every mental switch the brain makes. Although the individual switch might cost only a fraction of a second, by repetition, this cost builds up and damages productivity over the course of hours and days (not to mention the impacts of loss of focus which occurs when switching).
Researchers over several studies have attempted to measure the time cost of these switches to assess exactly how much multitasking can impact productivity.
In research carried out in 2001, Joshua Rubinstein, PhD, Jeffery Evans, PhD and David Meyer PhD attempted to quantify the impact of task switching time losses on productivity. They had subjects work on several tasks at differing levels of complexity, switching frequently between them. Unsurprisingly, the time taken to switch increased when the task was unfamiliar or more difficult.
These experiments produced the startling statistic that multitasking can damage your overall productivity by 40%, as the brain has to move through a series of stages to switch from one task to another, which slows progress significantly.
How to use it
Reducing multitasking will result in increasing productivity. Of course, there are subtleties to this. If you are trying to complete two simple tasks, the impact will be relatively small. Any parent will know that watching kids requires constant multitasking to a degree. But, while watching the kids as they sit glued to the TV and simultaneously talking to a friend on the phone works out great, it is not always the case. Trying to multitask while the offspring are in a swimming pool or near an open fire might not be so smart.
Similarly, physical tasks that we repeat continuously can usually be paired with other mental tasks without major issue - walking and talking on a phone rarely causes an issue, for example. That said, one study had a clown riding a unicycle riding to see if people talking on their phones would notice him. They didn’t. Lesson learned - we are not as good at multitasking as we think we are.
In a work context, this means finding ways to focus on one thing at a time - and especially when the task in hand is a more complex or absorbing one. Start with the ideas below to up your productivity without resorting to more counterproductive multitasking.
- Prioritise tasks effectively. Use a method such as categorising tasks by their level of importance and urgency, to ensure that you focus on the most important and urgent tasks in balance rather than being constantly in crisis management mode due to impending deadlines.
- Be realistic. Pick up to three or five tasks to work on in a normal day. Don’t create a ’To Do’ list that is a hundred items long, as this only works against focus and productivity!
- Manage email. One of the biggest productivity killers is email. Don’t check your messages every time something comes in. Choose times to go through all your mail and work an inbox zero policy. Exercise proper email etiquette with your colleagues and clients, and they will thank you for it too!
- Use tech to help. There are dozens of apps that can help improve productivity. From those that help you set and track goals, to those that help you manage your ’To Do’ list in a smarter way, creating different list categories to support your short, medium and long term goals.
- Know the time that works for you. We are all more productive at certain times of the day. Maybe you’re a morning person. Maybe not. Fix the most important work for the time of day you are most mentally alert and you will find yourself more productive without even trying.
- Pick a task and focus. Try using the Pomodoro method, in which you choose a task to work on in isolation for a fixed length of time - usually as short as 25 minutes. If you struggle with discipline and find yourself frequently checking emails of being drawn in by cat videos on YouTube, then there are even apps to shut down other browser screens and reduce temptation!
Why it matters
The idea of limiting working hours in a way that does not limit productivity (and therefore income) is not new. Keynes talked about this over eighty years ago, and more recent proponents such as Tim Ferriss (of ’Four Hour Working Week’ fame) have popularised the idea for our generation.
While hitting the jackpot and living comfortably despite working only a few hours a week may be out of reach for the majority of us. Many of us could improve our quality of life by implementing some simple ideas to improve productivity. By working in a more productive way, we could trim the length of our work day - avoiding those last minute crises and deadlines that mean working through lunch, or staying late in the office.
If you frequently find yourself wondering where the day has gone, or feel chained to the desk for more hours than your contract dictates, then taking steps to up your productivity might help. As counterintuitive as it might feel, looking at those times that you are multitasking - and therefore inadvertently wasting time and mental energy - might be the right place to start. Choose some hacks, apps and tools to increase your focus instead of trying to take on too much at once, and you will see the benefits in your productivity immediately.
Do you constantly multitask? Do you think it is effective? Your thoughts and comments below please...