Multitasking has now been touted for more than a decade as a way to stay productive in a world that requires more and more of you. The idea is that if you can handle two or more tasks at the same time, then, by golly, it must be more productive and time saving. However, is either assertion true?
Multitasking is analogous to multi-switching. In 2012, research published in Psychology Today showed that "Multi-tasking is a myth. You are really task-switching, and it's costing you time." Moreover, "if you do a lot of switching in a day it can add up to a loss of 40 percent of your productivity."
Consider this scenario: You're in a retail showroom that features wide-screen television sets. While you're looking at one screen, the one to the right is displaying a different program. As you turn to take in that screen and then look back to the left to take in the first, think about it: Did you miss anything? You can continue switching back and forth between screens, but if any action occurs on either, you are at a bit of a deficit since you can't give one your constant attention.
The same is true with multitasking. Even with relatively simple tasks, when switching back and forth between them, you never quite achieve the momentum and level of productivity you are capable of if you remain on one task at a time and take it to completion.
While in a few instances, multitasking is okay as an operating procedure, these generally involve familiar, non-complex tasks. In almost all cases, however, you are simply not doing your best.
So, why do people multitask at all? For one, it provides the illusion of greater productivity. After all, aren't you balancing two items at virtually the same time? Actually, you're not. During the time you switch between tasks, even when it takes a fraction of a second, your brain has more work to do than if you stayed focused on one thing. As a result, you're not saving time or elevating your productivity – indeed, you're diminishing it.
Unfortunately, many people don't feel like they have a choice. "So much is demanded of me that unless I double up or triple up on tasks, I'm not going to make it." This feeling is erroneous. It also undermines your ability to do your best work.
Perhaps worst of all, the perceived need to multitask also sends the wrong message to your subconscious. When you do it because you feel you have no other options, you're essentially saying to yourself, "I can't make it any other way," and "I need to do this to keep up or otherwise I'll fall behind" and other unhelpful messages.
Your mission, if you decide to accept it, is to begin focusing on one thing at a time. It might not seem like you're getting much done at first, but actually, this is the fastest and most productive path, both personally and professionally. You might need a few days or even a week to develop the habit, but persevere nonetheless.
Focusing on one thing at a time, soon enough, will prove to be its own reward. Your level of concentration will rise, as will your productivity and peace of mind. When you develop the habit of doing one thing at a time, you'll begin to experience a renewed sense of inner satisfaction.
About Jeff Davidson
Jeff Davidson, a.k.a. “The Work-life Balance Expert”®, speaks to accounting firms and associations on increasing their work-life balance so they can be more productive and competitive, and still have a life away from work. He is the author of Everyday Project Management, Breathing Space, and Simpler Living. Visit breathingspace.com.