Instant Productivity Booster: Quit Multitasking

Apr 28, 2011
6 Min Read

In a 2006 Harvard Business Review article, Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce wrote that the days of the 40-hour workweek are over and the 60-hour workweek is now commonplace. In their research, the authors found that 62% of high-earning individuals work over 50 hours a week and 35% put in over 60 hours. Is this necessary? Is there no other way to be more productive without putting in more hours? Perhaps there is. There are some well-known facts about productivity and our brain that can help us out. Over the next few blog posts, I will introduce them one by one.

One well-known way to be more productive is to quit multitasking.

While there are some people who can multitask, unfortunately, you are probably not one of them. That is not to sound harsh, but new research is finding that about 2.5% of the population—supertaskers—have a rare ability to attend to two tasks simultaneously. This is excellent for those who are in that category, but beware if you are not and you attempt to multi-task anyway. Your performance is likely to decline significantly, by as much as 30% and you may wind up getting less done than if you had set out to focus on one thing at a time. Pay special attention to this if you consider yourself an avid multitasker; research at Stanford found that people most likely to multitask have the least ability to do so well.

“What most people refer to as multitasking, I refer to as ‘switchtasking.’ Why? Because the truth is we really cannot do two things at the same time – we are only one person with only one brain. Neurologically speaking, it has been proven to be impossible. What we are really doing is switching back and forth between two tasks rapidly, typing here, paying attention there ... Keep this up over a long period of time, and you have deeply engrained habits that cause stress and anxiety and dropped responsibilities and a myriad of productivity & focus problems.” -Dave Crenshaw, author of The Myth of Multitasking

You might be multitasking if you:

  • Work on a project at home while you spend time with family.
  • Play Angry Birds on your cell phone while you are on a conference call.
  • Edit your blog post while you talk to a client on the phone.
  • Take an incoming call while you are driving down the highway.
  • Think about your project while you attend a meeting.
  • Keep an open IM session in progress while you answer emails and plan your day.
  • Answer Tweets as they come in while you check things off your to do list.

Break the habit!

  • People first. If you are spending time with another person, whether it is over the phone or across the table, give them your full undivided attention. You may think you are able to divide your attention well, but it is often not the case and it doesn’t go unnoticed by the other. We all have limited attention and if you push it to its limit, something has to give. You may be able to form complete sentences still, yes, but perhaps your empathy takes a dive. You may hear the words that are being spoken, but maybe you are not listening to the deeper meaning.
  • Catch yourself. Make it a game to catch yourself multitasking for the next week or so. How often do you do it? When do you do it? If you are able to do this easily, take it to the next level and monitor your performance. Do you do both things equally well? What about relative to when you give each task 100% of your attention?
  • Shut it down. Mary Czerwinski observed workers at Microsoft and found they juggled eight different windows at the same time and would spend twenty seconds looking at one window before flipping to another… in 1997. How many windows (and tabs!) do you have open right now? How many programs are running as you read this? If you want to be maximally productive, shut it all down except the one that you need.

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