The Best Way to Multitask-Don’t!

I have always considered myself an exceptional multi-tasker; able to answer emails, Slack notifications, take questions at my office door, and think about dinner and my lunch time workout without missing a beat. I think we moms believe it comes with the territory! Contrary to my beliefs, I have recently learned the best way to multitask is to actually NOT multitask! 

Multiple studies and research have shown us that we actually cannot do two cognitive things at the same time. Think about a time you have tried to have a phone conversation and answer an email at the same time. Did you find yourself writing the words you just said (or the person on the phone said) without realizing it? We can walk and chew gum simultaneously as those are two non-cognitive activities that don’t require conscious thought.  We can even drive and talk on the phone because driving is usually a non-cognitive task. But what happens when you are lost or not sure where to go? Right, you hang up or tell your passengers to pipe down while you navigate because it now requires cognitive processing to drive. 

What is really happening when we try to multitask; flip between tabs, answer emails while on a call, or visit with friends and follow a new recipe; is something called switching. Switching is bouncing back and forth between two (or more) activities. When we do this, our IQ drops on average 10 points. (For reference, it only drops 5 points when we are stoned.) 

We live in a time where multitasking is viewed as a badge of honor, and we truly believe we are able to accomplish more in less time. I can assure you this could not be further from the truth. James Johnston, a research psychologist at NASA writes, “When you ‘multitask’ it’s inevitable that each individual task be slower and at a lower quality.”  What’s worse, this behavior increases stress and anxiety and leads to physical problems such as: headaches, stomach trouble, sleep problems, back pain, heart disease and depression. Do any of those sound familiar to you?

If that isn’t enough, it makes you dumb! Switching impairs short-term memory and diminishes your ability to concentrate (try staying focused on one task for more than 20 minutes without drifting).  In essence, we are giving ourselves acquired A.D.D.. I wrote in an earlier article that every time we are pulled away from deep workflow, we lose just over 23 minutes of productivity. Think about the impact to your productivity and your bottom line. 

Do you want to get more done and do it better? If so, I urge you to make a switch of your own. Choose ONE THING to work on at a time. Choose your top 3 priorities each day (preferably the day before) and create time in your calendar to go all in. Start with the highest priority task and commit to single-task until it is complete. When you are in meetings or on a conference call, refuse to answer emails.  In doing so, you will quickly discover which activities are truly worth your time and attention (i.e., moving you towards your goals), and which are not. 

Chose to be a single-tasker. Your productivity, sanity, health, competence, and cognitive function will all be richly rewarded. 


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