A few years back, shortly after my computer hard drive crashed, I was a little behind in printing my checks through my accounting system for the payment cycle. To save time, I decided to answer emails while waiting for each check to go through the printer.
I saved time because while my next email was loading (I have a slow internet connection), I would shift my attention to the next step of the bill-paying process. When the email finished loading, I’d leave the bill paying and return my attention to the email. Back and forth. Back and forth. In those moments, I thought I was saving a lot of time. After all, I was doing something productive during the page loading. Looking back at it, I probably saved a total of about five minutes.
Fast-forward to the email I received a week later from BK&A when I checked my phone between client appointments:
I gave your check to our Finance team when I got back from the meeting, and they pointed out to me that the check wasn’t signed.
Do you want me to mail it over to you for a signature? Do you want me to come by your office? Let me know what works for you and we will get it all worked out.
At that moment being only 10 minutes away from their office (and not wanting them to wait on funds any longer), I drove over there. Ten minutes to get there. A few minutes to chat with Ryan. Ten minutes back.
Total time spent: approximately 25 minutes.
Time previously saved: 5 minutes.
Total time lost: 20 minutes.
So much for saving time by multitasking.
Does Multi-Tasking Save the Day?
I would love to be able to tell you that multitasking will save the day, but it will actually do the opposite. There are a few instances when it can help (I’ll give examples shortly), but the majority of the time, multitasking hurts us. Just read the research on it.
A team of researchers from the University of Glasgow, University of Leeds, and University of Hertfordshire found that our effectiveness drops by 69 percent for women and 77 percent for men when we multitask or task-switch! It’s more proof that the multitasking we were told to strive for in the 1990s is definitely not one of the time management tools we should engage.
Multitasking splits the brain in two. If there is only one task, the entire brain is used. If there are two tasks, the brain divides into two parts, and each half works on one task. If there are more than two simultaneous tasks, the brain can’t work. We actually give ourselves ADD-like symptoms when we multitask!
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A study at the University of California, Irvine, found that when tasks get fragmented and task switching occurs, it takes workers up to 25 minutes to return to the original task, if they return at all. Participants in the study reported that this way of working stinks.
Even scarier is the fact that many of the folks in the studies I’m referring to were self-professed “expert multitaskers.” They felt that they were able to accomplish multiple tasks, could do a good job, and often enjoyed the adrenaline rush from trying to do so much at once. They didn’t realize how poorly they actually performed until being shown their single-tasking results versus their multitasking results.
Bottom line: We think we’re good at juggling, but we’re not.
When Does Multi-Tasking Actually Work?
I believe that humans are capable of multitasking with low-function brain skills. “Low-function” means that thinking is not required because there is some kind of rote action (automatic, nonthinking movements) being applied.
Painting your toenails while listening to the play-by-play of the Dallas Cowboys
Shredding papers during commercials while watching television
Gossiping on the phone while stirring a pot of chili on the stove
It’s also easy to let a task run in the background while you concentrate on a task in the forefront. This is technically not multitasking because your brain isn’t working on two things at once. I call this ghost-tasking.
Cleaning the house while a load of laundry is in the washer or dryer
Emptying dishes from the dishwasher while your oatmeal is heating up in the microwave
Filing papers while your PC takes forever (okay, five minutes) to boot up
But as the research shows, we are incapable of multitasking well when it comes to high-function brain operations. We cannot complete two tasks effectively at the same time or while switching back and forth. We can do both tasks at mediocre levels, but not at exceedingly good ones because we are not using our whole brain and focusing on only one task at a time. And this costs us time and causes us stress in the long run.
Can You Successfully Multitask High-Brain-Function Activities?
You shouldn’t do two things at once that require thought or concentration, or switch back and forth in the midst of working on two tasks that require your brain to do some thinking — no matter how unimportant you believe the thoughts might be.
Driving and texting/emailing
Participating in an important business call while checking email
Checking email in between completing different components of bill paying or creating proposals or reports
Even if you’ve been driving for 50 years, driving is not a rote function. It requires split-second decisions to be made, especially if there’s an idiot driving next to you. Texting — yes, even LOL IMHO — requires your brain to read what someone communicated with you, think of a response, and relay to your fingers what to type back. You can’t do both well at the same time. Just ask someone who’s been involved in a car accident with a driver who was using his/her smartphone.
Checking email — no matter how trivial the message might be — is a high-brain-function task because you need to read, process the information, and respond. An important business call requires thought and responses. The bill-paying process is a high-brain-function task because you need to pay the correct entity the correct amount, sign off, and make sure that the payment gets delivered to the correct place.
In my earlier story, I attempted to task-switch between these high-brain-function tasks, which is why I wound up making a mistake...which cost me time later on.
How To Gain 45 Minutes For Each Hour You Don't Multitask!
Think about this: if you were to multitask and/or task-switch for one hour, according to the research, your performance would drop by 69 to 77 percent, which means that you would waste about 45 minutes of your time. That’s where time disappears! We let ourselves do this!
If you want to lower your job performance by more than two-thirds and lose time in the process, the best way to do that is to continue to allow yourself to multitask and task-switch. But you don’t want that, do you? You’re here to save time and lower your stress levels. Your ghost-tasking can continue, but the multitasking and task switching need to end. Now. And you’re in total control of this because it’s your decision.
Here are the strategies behind the tactics.
Build up your awareness.
When you find yourself moving into multitask or task-switching mode, tell yourself to stop. Say it out loud if you need to. “Stop!” Choose one task to focus on for the next 15 minutes.
Have a plan for your day.
Knowing exactly what you need to accomplish that day will help you to stay focused and prevent multitasking.
Determine your attention span.
Whether you have ADD, ADHD, or Squirrel! (the humorous tag — possibly originating from the 2009 movie Up — used by many to denote the affliction of those who are easily distracted), we all have shorter attention spans nowadays — especially if we’re working on something that isn’t fun.
Start timing how long you’re able to work on a single task. Having an estimated number will help you establish your work flow. (My attention span is only nine minutes on boring tasks.)
Discover your best brain time.
Our brains tend to function at high levels during some parts of the day and lower levels at other times. It’s during these low times that our brains tend to go into multitask mode because they’re too tired to stay focused. Avoid working on your most critical tasks during your low-brain times of the day.
Find a productive work area.
Sometimes we accidentally task-switch because we get distracted. (Squirrel!) When you have an important project to work on, find a space without visual (striking art pieces, piles of clutter, computer screen) or auditory distractions (talking, music, message indicator on your phone or computer).
Clear your desk of all materials except what you need.
You might have multiple projects due, but you can work effectively on only one at a time. Put away the materials for all other projects, and keep visible on your desk only the materials that apply to the single project on which you’ll focus during this work period.
Use a timer to keep you laser-focused.
You can pick a random number like 8 or 15 minutes. Better yet, if you know your attention span, set the timer to that number. The timer is a visual reminder that you’re supposed to be working on something. It’s also your fail-safe. If you have wandered away, the timer will rein you back in when it goes off.
Post your objective in your work area.
In addition to or instead of a timer, consider posting your task objective so that each time you look up to allow your brain to wander, your posted objective reminds you of what you’re supposed to be working on.
Everyone’s brain tires at a different rate. When you feel your brainpower start to go downhill (less energy, harder to concentrate), your brain will become more susceptible to making not-so-great decisions about your time. So give your brain a break once every hour or two. Go for a short walk, do some deep breathing, go have some fun. But set your timer for when it’s time to return!
Celebrate focused time.
Reflect on how powerful your brain was while you were concentrating. Celebrate by smiling, throwing your hands in the air like you just don’t care, or even doing a little happy dance. This will create endorphins. The body craves endorphins. When the brain associates your focus with celebration and endorphins, it will crave more focus. Get addicted to focus!
One task at a time, even if that focus is for only 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes of laser focus is far better than one hour of multitasking and task switching, during which we’d lose about 45 minutes.
Hey! You could laser-focus for 15 minutes, then knock off or exercise or take a nap for the other 45 instead! It’s the same amount of time, but you can get so much more done when you make the decision to single-task.
©2016 by Helene Segura. Used with permission of
New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com
About the Author
Helene Segura, MAEd, CPO, has spoken to thousands of go-getters, teaching them to manage stress by regaining control of their chaotic work and personal lives. She has coached hundreds of clients to improve their personal productivity and performance by applying neuroscience and behavioral modification techniques to wipe out destructive, time-wasting habits. Helene has been featured as an organizational expert in more than 100 media appearances. Visit her website at www.HeleneSegura.com