By Alyson Sheppard
You may have this page open on your computer or your phone as one of a dozen tabs you’re currently flipping between. You may also be checking emails, responding to texts, scrolling through Instagram, updating your calendar and listening to a podcast. Because you, like most everyone else, have been conditioned to believe you can be more productive if you’re completing more tasks at once.
But as it turns out, multitasking is a myth.
In fact, the strategy you’ve been using to be more effective at work and in your personal life is actually making you less productive, less efficient, more forgetful, more error-prone, and more anxious. And there are much better ways to chip away at that never-ending to-do list.
Courtney Clifford, a MyWellbeing creative leadership coach, based in New York, regularly sees clients who struggle with productivity issues. Corporations and entrepreneurs reach out to her seeking clarity and structure on how they can optimize their time to produce higher quality work.
“It’s the same theme, whether I’m going into a business and they’re trying to understand why they’re not meeting deadlines or it’s an individual who feels completely overwhelmed,” Clifford said. “They don't understand where the day goes. A lot of people will come to me, especially now during COVID and quarantine, and say, ‘I have all this time, why am I not getting anything done?’
“My question always is: How are you actually spending your time?”
If they’re like most, they’re attempting to multitask all day long, which gives them the illusion of productivity; but just because they feel busy doesn’t mean they’re accomplishing much. What they’re actually stuck in is a nonstop cycle of being distracted. While many can walk and chew gum at the same time, the brain is wired to monotask, or focus on one complex activity at a time. So, what someone thinks is multitasking is actually serial tasking, or switching back and forth between individual tasks over and over again, constantly starting and stopping one for another.
According to research from the American Psychological Association, this transition is not smooth; it requires a few tenths of a second per switch, creating mental blocks that can cost up to 40% of the time someone believes they are being productive. Complicating matters, when someone’s attention is split or their concentration is spread thin, their mind lingers on things they “could” be doing instead of what they “should” be doing, and they are more likely to lose focus, make mistakes, and forget key details.
“In people’s minds, they think they’re spending their time on the most important things, but really they’re sort of all over the place,” Clifford said. “And because they’re not putting their direct focus on the one task that they need to be focusing on at that given time, they’re not fully digesting and absorbing and being present to it. Then what ends up happening is they get taken away by the next thing.”
People don’t need to learn how to get it all done at once, Clifford says. What they really need to learn is how to better manage their time. Here are some tips that Clifford recommends.
Clifford recommends taking detailed notes of how you work, for at least a day. This will serve as a reality check.
“Most people are shocked when they actually record how they’re spending their days or hours or minutes, how much energy they’re wasting,” Clifford said. According to one study from the University of California, Irvine’s Department of Informatics, people average only three minutes on a task—only two on an electronic tool or paper document—before switching to another.
Clifford suggests taking a bird’s eye view of where you’re placing your energy using a system called the Eisenhower Matrix. In this DIY scorecard, you can determine your urgent, non-urgent, delegatable, and useless tasks. Plan to focus on the urgent work deadlines first and then, if possible, offload the tasks you don’t need or like to do, like making spreadsheets or meal prepping, to others.
“I also get clients to keep notes in their phone on when they feel most inspired, so they can really start to hone in on what is their area of excellence,” she said. “You just feel better overall when the majority of your time is spent doing what is in your area of expertise as opposed to pushing yourself up the mountain to do things that you could be delegating to somebody else.”
Plan windows in your day to focus on singular tasks. Set a time limit, like 15, 30, or 90 minutes, and dedicate it to completing the most pressing activity, like writing a report or responding to emails. If there are certain times of the day when you work best or feel the most creative—you probably aren’t at your sharpest right after lunch, for example—build bursts of work time into those windows. When you are done, you can move onto the next task.
“By blocking your time, you have complete presence, complete focus on what’s in front of you, and you can give your best effort,” Clifford said. Focusing on single tasks can also get you into a flow, so you can finish work faster and better, actually gaining time and reducing overall stress.
According to a Stanford study, supposed multitaskers are incapable of filtering out irrelevant information, which slows down their work progress. So when you are in your scheduled work windows, you need to limit distractions. Mute IM and email notifications on your computer. Put your phone in another room. Block time-wasting websites you browse when bored.
If noises around you are a problem, wear headphones and listen to white noise, which Clifford says can put you in a “state of calm, as opposed to this state of, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to get it all done.’”
Schedule breaks into your work schedule so you can refuel and mentally reset. Take 10 or 20 minutes in between tasks to do things that don’t require complex thought. That way you can be ready to tackle the next task on your list.
“Be intentional with how you spend your time,” Clifford said. “There’s a difference between carving out time to watch your favorite movie or show or catching up with friends on social media, and doing it in between everything else that you’re doing where it’s taking away from what you need to do.”
Clifford says many of her clients get uncomfortable with these scheduled downtimes; they don’t know what to do with it so they just pile more onto their schedules. But that inhibits their creativity. She recommends meditation.
“We all need our creativity to produce great work,” she said. “We need space to be inspired. You need to turn down the volume on all the demands and just hear what your inner self is telling you. And that’s when the best inspiration comes to you.”
Monotasking doesn’t just help with your productivity, it also helps with your relationships. Think of the last time you were having a conversation with someone and they were scrolling through their phone, not making eye contact with you or actively listening. That probably didn’t make you feel good. Whether that happens in a work environment or at home, in your personal life, multitasking means you’re never really giving any one thing or person 100% of your focus.
“In order to build team effectiveness or personal relationships, it’s about really being present to what's in front of you,” Clifford said. “You’re not going to have effective communication if you’re not present, and then you’re going to miss things in the notes you’re taking or details in the email you’re reading. You miss the little things when you’re going back and forth.”
By just managing your time better and honing in your focus, Clifford says, your work productivity can soar and your entire life can improve.
“A lot of clients are used to an environment where they have to get everything done at once,” she said. “They’ve just never been shown there’s another way. And then when they try it, they can’t believe it. They’re like, ‘Wow, I’m more efficient and I’m producing better results because I don’t feel that pressure, whether it’s coming from someone else or it’s self-imposed.’ They never go back. It really is an easy transition.”
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