Avoid multitasking and increase your focus

I was reading an article on the internet that referred to a research study done at Stanford which concluded that multitasking is bad for the brain. At first, this seemed odd to me. But, the more I thought about it and reflected on my own life, it was pretty obvious that multitasking was bringing down my productivity and was not doing me any good. Very soon, I had a collection of research studies that said the same thing – multitasking isn’t good for you!

Multitasking is bad? Really?

This can come as quite a surprise to most of us who believe that the hallmark of an efficient employee/artisan/worker is the ability to do more than one task at the same time. All of us do it – answering the phone while typing out an email, or answering two calls at the same time, or unfortunately, use our mobile phones while driving, or crossing the street. So why is multitasking bad??

If you chase two rabbits, you will catch neither one

– an old Russian proverb

Context switch = Loss of productivity

The price you pay for multitasking comes from context-switching. By this, I mean that the human brain needs time and some effort to switch from one task to another. And often, some pieces of information (memory) gets lost in the switching.

Let’s give this a computer analogy. You are working on task A and you want to switch to task B. You first need to save A, close it, open task B, load the data from memory, and figure out what you were doing an hour ago, and resume it. Now, repeat the same procedure every time you want to switch from A to B and vice-versa. It’s not hard to see that your computer is going to hang/crash/overload/burn soon! Now, think of your brain as this computer – it isn’t a pretty picture, is it?

Jeff Atwood, in this blog post, writes about the price you pay for context switching. Referring to Gerald Weinberg’s book on quality systems, Jeff says the following –

multitasking-graph

Even adding a single project to your workload is profoundly debilitating by Weinberg’s calculation. You lose 20% of your time. By the time you add a third project to the mix, nearly half your time is wasted in task switching.

Why do I multitask?

So, I asked myself why I multitask and made a list (not very pretty) –

  1. I procrastinated earlier and now I don’t have much time left to finish my tasks.
  2. I forgot about a task and its due soon.
  3. I promised too much and now I have to deliver.
  4. It’s inevitable – kids, career, work pressure, 24 hours aren’t enough, etc., etc.
  5. I am bored!
  6. Got distracted and ended up reading twenty articles on how a man should shave 😦

Well, #4 can’t be helped most of the time. Sometimes, you have to answer the phone while mixing your baby’s cereal. It could be avoided by asking the person on the other end if you can call them back, but, heck – sometimes you just need to multitask. But, in 80-90% of the cases, multitasking can and must be avoided.

Here’s my set of solutions to help you curb multitasking –

  1. Well begun is half done: When I look at my list of reasons, I see that scheduling is at the heart of most of the problems. So here’s what I do – every morning I settle down with a cup of tea and plan my day. I don’t micro-schedule, but, look at my day on a macro-level. Which meetings do I have? Do I have any appointments? Any presentations? What tasks do I intend to accomplish? And so on. Why do I love doing this?
    1. well, for one, it is quiet and calm early in the morning – no traffic, no TV, and my mind is well rested and this helps me concentrate.
    2. macro-level planning helps me get a birds-eye view of my day and prevent any surprises.
    3. Caution: don’t go overboard and schedule every waking minute of your day. You will almost certainly fail. Don’t burden yourself!
  2. Learn to say no: stop burdening yourself with more than you can handle. And, don’t worry – if you do your job well and stick to your commitments, there is no reason for people to get upset with you when you say no.
  3. If you find it hard to concentrate, use the Pomodoro Technique. By working in sprints of 20 mins, you will find it easier to concentrate on just one task without all the distractions and context switching. Slowly increase the time from 20 mins to 40 mins and then to 1 hr, and soon enough you will be a pro at doing one task without getting distracted.
  4. Turn off all your email alerts, smart phone alerts, alarms, and work on your task with complete concentration. It could be for just 20 mins – but do it!
  5. Give yourself a treat: if you like browsing a particular website, then plan and schedule some time for it. Say, work for 50 mins and relax for 10 mins? All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy 🙂
  6. Be mindful and deliberate in everything you do. This will take you far when the need to concentrate and focus really comes.
  7. And most importantly – calm down, take a deep breath, relax, take a stroll, smell the rain-soaked soil, and take in all the beauty around you! It’s alright – that email can wait three more minutes! It really can 🙂

I am very curious about how multitasking has helped/affected your personal life and what you’ve done about it. So please let me know in the comments section.

Until next time, I leave you with this wonderful message –

Be like a postage stamp—stick to one thing until you get there.

– Josh Billings

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