Is multitasking really possible?

As much as you may think you can answer emails and still work on that report, or text with a friend while you’re studying for a test, science says differently. Your brain isn’t wired for multitasking. To get the time savings you think you’re getting from multitasking — which, again, isn’t saving you any time — try batching instead. Here’s how to do it.

The thing about multitasking is that you’re never actually doing two tasks at the same time; you’re just switching from one to the other and back again. That switching eats up more time than you probably realize. In a 2007 study, people who were interrupted by an email or an instant message during a computer task were 20 to 25 minutes behind by the time they resumed the first task, even though the interruption only took 10 minutes. A third of those people took more than two hours to get back on task.

You can save time, then, by doing the opposite of multitasking: switching between tasks as little as possible. That’s the essence of batching. The idea is that you divvy up your tasks by category — things like emails, writing, and idea generation — then do all of each type in one chunk of time. That chunk can be one four-hour session on Mondays, or a 30-minute session every morning and evening; whatever the task calls for. Mark it in your calendar and treat it like an appointment.

For example, Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, suggests only checking and responding to email twice a day. (To do this, you’ll have to make others aware, which is why he’s published a couple templates you can use to set up an autoresponder for the times you won’t be responding yourself.) Turn off email notifications so you won’t be tempted, and unsubscribe from any unneeded email lists, while you’re at it. You can do the same thing with phone calls, or even chores at home like cooking and cleaning.

Batching also works well when you need to do a lot of reading, learning, or idea generation. Big shots like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett set out one hour every weekday specifically for learning or practicing a skill, for example. And while it can seem self-indulgent, carving out an appointment to just spend time letting your mind run free is incredibly important for creative thinking. Daydreaming, mind wandering, mindlessness — whatever you call it, you need it if you want to get the creative juices flowing.

Ah, but there’s the caveat. When it comes to actually doing the tasks that require that creativity — writing, designing, saving the world — batching has its drawbacks. That’s because creative ideas don’t just burst forth from a never-ending fountain; at a certain point, you run dry. In a 2017 study, researchers at Columbia Business School found that when people regularly switched between tasks, they performed better on a test of creative thinking than people who worked on one task the whole time, and even those who switched when they felt like it.

In the end, a little of each might be the wisest decision. Batch the tasks that eat up your precious minutes so that you have the hours to devote to switching around among the creative tasks you love.

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18 thoughts on “Is multitasking really possible?

  1. Loved this article. I always tell people, I’ve been multi-tasking since I was 5; thanks to my mom, I took it as a challenge when she would tell me to do several things at one time. That skill also helped me in many jobs – but, while I didn’t know the name for it, batching has been something that I have tried to do more of, in my personal life and job – although I still find myself running on that multi-tasking wheel from time to time, I do like batching; now if I can only carve out that “creative thinking” time. Always love your post! Have a good day!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree…I am often forced to multitask as a mom and teacher, but I do look for opportunities to do one task at a time because the end result is always better.

    Liked by 1 person

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