For at least the past five years I have read countless articles not just deriding the value of the so-called skill, but citing experts that flat out deny that there is such a competency in the first place, and pointing to evidence that those who engage in the behaviour are seriously harming their cognitive performance.
If Its Not “Multitasking,” Then What Do You Call It?
The proper word for what is commonly referred to as multitasking is “task-switching.” I know what you’re thinking: “So you mean to tell me I am an excellent task-switcher? Damn it, that won’t sound as great on my list of strengths that headline my Curriculum Vitae.” Well, it’s probably best if you replace the skill altogether—because there is no evidence that frequent task-switching is an enviable habit either.
If you thought task-switching sounds a little different from multitasking you are right. The reason is because multitasking describes an imaginary skill. A prominent psychologist and author of the bestseller, Brain Rules, explains: “The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time… to put it bluntly, research shows that we cannot multitask."
Compelling Reasons to Minimize Task-switching
An article by Dr. Susan Weinschenk in Psychology Today suggests that people who frequently switch tasks could see their productivity reduced by up to 40%. She goes on to list several reasons for limiting how often you switch between tasks during your work, including:
- It takes more time to get tasks completed if you switch between them than if you do them one at a time;
- You make more errors when you switch than if you do one task at a time;
- If the tasks are complex then these time and error penalties increase.
Tips to Help Kick Your Habit of Multitasking
For some reason multitasking makes us feel good, but don’t fall into the trap. Follow these simple steps to avoid switching between tasks too frequently:
1. Block off time for completing individual tasks. Schedule time to complete tasks, and if at all possible, avoid constantly checking your phone and email.
2. Practice better time management. Scheduling tasks will give you a better understanding of your limits, and will also make it apparent when you need to say “no” to taking on additional tasks.
3. Avoid televisions, and other such distractions. I know it sounds pretty basic, but it’s important to find a proper place for doing your work – and the living room is not one of them.
4. Work in 60-90 minute blocks. Getting up from your desk and taking a brief walk, or listening to music for 5 minutes can actually help you to refocus and prepare for the next task on your list.
5. Study yourself, says David Rock author of Your Brain at Work. Rock’s research suggests that we have only a handful of hours per week when we are truly doing our best thinking. Whether for you that is in the early AM, late evening, or otherwise find out when you are at your best and allocate your toughest tasks to that period of time.