How many different apps do you have open on your phone right now? How many tabs on your internet browser? And how many different e-mail threads and Facebook messages?
If you’re like most people, you probably have a lot of each of these – too many, in fact. The myth of multitasking has seeped into every aspect of our lives, not only in terms of how we communicate but also the way we work and live the rest of our day-to-day lives.
And multitasking might be a bigger problem than you think; not only is splitting our time into fragments not helpful or efficient, it is actually counterproductive as highlighted in the book, The Myths of Multitasking, by Dave Crenshaw.
These days, with more ways than ever to be connected and communicate with one another, it can feel like there’s an endless supply of tasks that demand to be juggled all at once.
Appropriately enough, the traditional way of dealing with multiple tasks at once was to multitask.
But here’s the thing: multitasking is a lie. A more accurate name for this method of working is switchtasking, and it is an inefficient and inadequate way of getting things done. The human brain is an impressive thing to behold, but it doesn’t perform well when you attempt to focus on more than one thing at a time.
There are plenty of studies to back this up, including a recent one from Vanderbilt University. Researchers couldn’t find a single piece of neurological evidence to suggest that the human brain is capable of taking on more than one task at a time.
What the brain can do is switch back and forth, from one task to another. It can do this quickly enough to give you the impression that it is multitasking, but what it is really doing is switchtasking.
Now, there are two different kinds of switchtasking: you can either make active switches or passive switches.
Active switches happen in situations you create yourself, such as deciding to check your e-mail while talking to someone on the phone. These would be switches that you are actively making.
Passive switches happen in situations that are initiated by something or someone else. An example of this would be when you’re facing a deadline and, in the middle of preparing documents, a coworker decides to stop by and start talking to you. Here, you’re being asked to switch your attention between the documents and your coworker.
At one time or another, you may have been proud of your ability to switch between multiple tasks and highlighted this talent on your resume.
But the truth is, switchtasking isn’t an effective or time-saving way of working.
For a good example, let’s look at a typical workday scenario:
Helen is a hardworking CEO for a successful retail clothing company. But every hour of every day, she’ll usually have to deal with multiple interruptions.
A typical scenario would find Helen trying to compose an e-mail when her assistant, Sally, interrupts with an important question. Since Helen needs to get her e-mails out quickly, at first, she’ll attempt to continue typing and switch her attention back and forth between Sally and the e-mail.
However, since Sally’s question are generally complex, Helen will eventually be forced to stop typing and give the question her full attention in order to come up with an answer. Once she gives Sally an answer, Helen can switch back to the e-mail, but it is important to recognize that it will take her a few minutes before she can get back to the level of focus she had previously.
This is why switching between tasks is ultimately inefficient and a waste of time, because whether you are making active or passive switches, you will inevitably need to stop one train of thought to start another.
When Helen realized she couldn’t give her e-mail or Sally’s question the attention they each required and deserved, she had to stop what she was doing. And no matter what, switching takes extra time to focus on the new task and then refocus on the old task, both of which eat up valuable time from the day.
You’re probably wondering, “How can I avoid switching? Aren’t these interruptions just a fact of life?”
Let’s say you’re the busy CEO of a successful company. What steps could you take to reduce interruptions and minimize switches?
One of the most common reasons for someone to come knocking on your door is that they don’t know when they’ll be able to get your attention otherwise.
The solution here is to set a schedule of recurring meetings with the coworkers who need your input the most. This way, they’ll know that they can save their questions until the next scheduled meeting and will get their answer soon enough. And since they won’t have to knock on your door, you’ll get uninterrupted time to focus on your work between these meetings.
Another way to keep interruptions at bay is to set a regular period when your office door is open to any employees who may need your help.
Most stores aren’t open 24/7, and that works out just fine because customers are well aware of when they can show up to get what they need. The same concept can work for your office: set up regular office hours during which anyone can show up to ask questions or get the clarifications they need.
Be clear about these times by posting the hours on your door and sending a mass email to everyone in your company or organization.
You can also take a similar step to take care of those annoying phone calls: leave an outgoing message on your voicemail that tells callers when they can expect to get in touch with you.
For example, you could leave a message that says something like, “I’m currently unavailable, as I’m either in a meeting or with a customer. Please know that I check my messages daily at 10:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m., so if you leave a brief message, I will get back to you shortly.” That helps everyone out to plan their schedule so that they can best reach you.
Check out my related post: How to stay focused?