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5 Reasons Multitasking Does Not Work

Many of us grew up learning multitasking was a hallmark of a productive person. While sounding good in theory, this practice has proven to be incorrect. Studies now reveal that multitasking is nothing more than switching back and forth between tasks and it lowers our productivity. Below are 5 points that deal with the facts behind project hopping and the lack of performance that occurs when we allow seemingly innocuous interruptions to occur in daily life. I hope you take these to heart as we all seek to live a life with greater meaning.

1. Multitasking is Actually Task-switching: “When it comes to attention and productivity, our brains have a finite amount. It’s like a pie chart, and whatever we’re working on is going to take up the majority of that pie. There’s not a lot left over for other things, with the exception of automatic behaviors like walking or chewing gum,” says Guy Winch, PhD, author of Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries. “Moving back and forth between several tasks actually wastes productivity, because your attention is expended on the act of switching gears.” The author also makes the point when you switch back and forth between projects or tasks, you never get fully “in the zone” on either activity. This lessens your overall productivity.

2. Multitasking Wastes Time: Switching between tasks wastes time and keeps you in a higher state of alert. A University of California, Irvine study showed employees with constant access to email had higher heart rates and less productivity because they were multitasking between checking emails and returning to whatever project they were focused on before allowing themselves to be interrupted. Those without access to email throughout the day were more productive and had lower heart rates. “What tends to save the most time is to do things in batches,” says Winch. “Pay your bills all at once, then send your emails all at once. Each task requires a specific mindset, and once you get in a groove you should stay there and finish.” I would also add that you should schedule your more difficult items in the first part of your day and those tasks that take less brainpower in the afternoon. When I am writing blogs, I do my best work in the morning through about midday. By the time 4 p.m. rolls around, my brain is falling asleep. I no longer am effective doing research, and my creativity has plummeted. I can check email, though. This does not use a lot of brain cells, so it is a good time to do more mundane tasks before I shut my workday down.

3. Did You Miss the Forest for the Trees? According to a Western Washington University study, 75% of college students, who were on their cell phones while walking across campus, never saw the crazy clown riding his bike right in front of them. This is called “intentional blindness.” It is a term meaning you might physically see something, but it is not registering in your mind. The summary analysis concluded if we are busy doing two things at the same time, we often miss things even when they are right in front of us. Have you ever tried to read a book and watch TV at the same time? You probably missed important points from both, even though you were multitasking. Studying for an exam while watching Netflix? You will not perform as well on the test as you would have if you had focused singularly on reading your class notes.

4. I Forgot: When we are working on a task, we utilize our short-term memory. As we age, our short-term memory begins to decline, and when we switch from one task back to another, it takes us a while to re-focus. How often have you sat back down to a project after being interrupted and said, “Now, where was I?” We waste precious time trying to pick up where we left off. According to a University of California, Irvine study people spend around 11 minutes on a project before they are interrupted, and it takes them about 25 minutes to get back to the same point where they left off before the distraction. Gloria Mark, who studies digital distraction at UC, Irvine, says, “It takes an average of about 25 minutes…to return to the original task after an interruption.” Why is this? Mark states, “People have to cognitively reorient where they were, and this is an extra cognitive load because you have to recall, for example, where you were if you’re working on a document. What was your train of thought before you got interrupted? And the problem isn’t just the time wasted. We’re sacrificing some of our best thinking. When people are switching contexts every 10 and half minutes they can’t possibly be thinking deeply. There’s no way people can achieve flow.”

5. OHIO: Only Handle It Once: This is a term psychiatrists use for people who have trouble focusing. “This is a rule of thumb for many people with ADHD, but it can also be practiced by anyone who wants to be more organized,” says Winch. “It basically means if you take something on, don’t stop until you’ve finished it. If you’re going to stick to this principle, you need to be disciplined and plan out your day so that when a distraction arises… you know that there will be time for it (the distraction) later.” I practice OHIO by utilizing a strict formula with my daily planning guide called the Bullet Journal (BUJO). For a more detailed explanation of my daily schedule with BUJO, read here.

To summarize, that 30 seconds you took to check Facebook or Instagram? In reality it cost you 25 minutes. Did you check social media three times in the middle of the workday? Then you lost 75 minutes of productivity. How often do you stop to check texts throughout the day? Now, multiply that by 25 minutes. Yikes! We can all see how quickly this adds up. When experts say social media, and other interruptions, are a time drain, they mean it literally.

To get the most of your day learn to put into place a schedule that allows you to have uninterrupted blocks of time. This is the proven method. I am a walking testament to the increased level of productivity I experienced after learning to structure my days this way. There are different planners people can use to help stay structured, and each person needs to find a method that works with their personality, but the one thing that cannot be denied: setting aside blocks of time with NO interruptions is key. Bottom line when it comes to social media? Detach the cell phone from your hand. Put it in a drawer, and discipline yourself to check it only twice a day. “But what if someone needs me?” Tell those that are important in your life to call you if it is an emergency. You will hear the phone ring in a drawer. Think of it this way. If you are at work, would you let someone walk into your office 10 times a day just to tell you a funny joke or show you a picture? Checking messages every time a text comes in is no different. You will not achieve the success you hope for, at the pace you desire, if you do not put boundaries around the cell phone.

When I have a day that goes as planned, I check social media once in the morning and once in the evening. I check email twice a day, again, morning and evening. I put my phone in the drawer and my family knows I am unreachable by text for certain blocks of time throughout the day. I set aside one day a week where I run errands, grocery shop, handle things around the house, have appointments, etc. The rest of the week I block out to sit at my computer and write. I used to schedule various appointments on different days throughout the week. I might have lunch with a friend on Monday and another on Thursday. Then a doctor’s appointment on Wednesday and grocery shopping on Tuesday. I found this was horribly inefficient, because it was an interruption that cut right into the middle of my day. Now I do my best to schedule my outings on the same day. By doing this I am time blocking my errands and appointments. I try to make Mondays my “out of the house” day. If I need to see two friends that week, I might schedule breakfast with one and lunch with the other, but I keep it on the same day. In between meetings I will run errands (grocery shop, pick up dry cleaning) and in the afternoon, I can make my doctor’s appointment. It does not always work out perfectly, but this is the time blocking I strive for. This leaves the rest of the week to “get in the zone” while I research and write for the blog.

Multitasking is an inefficient way to be productive. Setting up blocks of time with no interruptions takes discipline, but once you practice this way of organizing your day, it becomes routine. It is also rewarding, because the amount of progress you begin to make, and the speed in which you make it, brings your life goals closer into view. When you begin to see your dreams becoming reality, you are motivated to cut out the distractions and focus like a laser. The endorphins begin to flow with each step you take, and soon, you are soaring high above those around you as they stay trapped in the ever frustrating daily cycle of interruptions, their desires seemingly always out of reach. Stop multitasking, and re-focus on a better way of living your daily life.

Together with you,

Lisa Lou


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