Multitasking: the good, the bad, and the solution
A lot of press has been showing up recently about the negative effects caused by multitasking, and yet it seems to be a necessary evil for anyone trying to balance life’s priorities. We all know that we are meant to process one thing at a time to be our most productive self (see our post How to Stay Focused and Maximize Your Efficiency) and yet we all multitask to stay on top of our work. So, let’s try to get to the bottom of this buzzword. I’m going to walk you through the good, the bad, and what you can do to not only task-switch efficiently, but to help you control your desktop work space, and focus on one thing at a time.
Productive multitasking - oxymoron?
Taking it right down to the basics, our brain is single threaded and it cannot physically do two things at once. That means that if we are focusing on something, we cannot do something else. Granted, if we are doing a mundane and repetitive activity like vacuuming or walking, we can be pretty good at talking or listening to a podcast, ergo doing two things at once. But only because one of these tasks requires such a small amount of attention and focus to accomplish. But other than that, we mentally cannot do two things at once as two separate activities requires our brain to be focusing on each of them. That’s why if we are in the middle of writing an email and a co-worker comes to chat, we must momentarily stop typing to listen to what they are saying. Otherwise you may be nodding as they are talking, but once they leave your desk you have to sit back and think, “Now what were they just saying?” That’s your brain not being able to to comprehend and digest two things at once.
The science behind multitasking
Research has found that professionals are interrupted every 11 minutes, and they spend almost a third of their day recovering from these distractions! Especially if we are working on one item and our coworker or an email interrupts us on a whole other topic, it’s extremely hard for us to switch gears so abruptly, head in a different direction, and then return to what we were doing.
Another study was done by Clifford Nass and Anthony Wagner at Stanford to determine what (if anything) made heavy multitaskers more productive. They ran several studies and found that “multitaskers” were worse at (1) ignoring irrelevant information, (2) storing and organizing information and (3) switching between tasks. All in all, depending on how you look at it, the study was a huge flop as they proved multitaskers are extremely unproductive. As Chris Bailey (author of The Productivity Project) explains this study in his book, he notes “multitasking makes you less productive because it makes you more prone to errors, adds stress to your work, takes longer because it costs you time and attention to switch between tasks, and even affects your memory.... multitasking overloads your brain” (Bailey 195).
So why do we multitask?
So why do we claim we are all great “multitaskers”? Well, I think because we are forced to do so many different activities throughout the day, wear multiple hats at work, and switch between priorities at the drop of a pin, we have no choice but to task-switch constantly. This makes us feel like we are multitasking or doing two things at once as we are moving so fast. But in reality, we are doing one thing at a time for very short bursts before moving on to the next item that needs our attention. But this isn’t good. How can we expect to really get anything done if we can’t even focus on one thing for 15...20...60 minutes?
Multitasking: the necessary evil
The truth of the matter is, for most of us at least, interruptions from co-workers, having to respond to client calls or emails quickly and needing to switch between tasks constantly at work is not going away. But how can we regain control of our workday and be productive by only doing one thing at a time? A study done at the University of California, Irvine identified the need for an implementation that “provide[s] both fully customizable, individual, and project-specific views as well as providing awareness information on co-workers’ virtual locations.”
The solution to task-switch efficiently
After personally experiencing the frustrations that professionals put up with when juggling multiple accounts and projects, I was fed up with the digital chaos and lack of tools there were to alleviate the time waste. There didn’t seem to be a great way to manage and organize my desktop as I constantly had upwards of 10-15 windows, tabs and applications open (all for different activities). After working in this position for over four years, I finally decided to do something about it, and co-founded Wolf Flow.
Wolf Flow lets users:
- switch between their tasks efficiently
- group and store relevant resources for each activity separately
- recover quickly from interruptions and distractions
Whether you decide to try Wolf Flow or not, I strongly urge you to rethink your workflows and work deliberately on one task at a time before moving on. Not only will you see fewer mistakes in your work, but you will feel more in control and enhance your productivity. And keep reading our blog - it’s all about helping you be your most productive self!
Mark, Gloria, et al. “No Task Left behind?” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems - CHI '05, 2005, doi:10.1145/1054972.1055017.
Keller, Gary, and Jay Papasan. The One Thing: the Surprisingly Simple Truth behind Extraordinary Results. John Murray, 2014.
Bailey, Chris. The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy. Crown Business, 2016.