The Argument Against (and a Case for) Multi-Tasking

Why You're Not Actually Multi-Tasking

There’s no question that technology has changed our working lives completely. Our smart phones allow us to be connected at all times, video conferencing allows us to work remotely and still feel a part of the team, and shared calendars allow for others to book our meetings and know when we’re available. We are constantly pulled in multiple directions and often have more work on our plate than we’re able to accomplish during the work day. So what do we do when we don’t have time to complete each task individually? We start to multi-task.

We use a large team meeting as an opportunity to catch up on email. We work on multiple projects at any given time. We read newsletters and memos during conference calls or while waiting for files to load. We’re distracted and stressed.

The truth is, there is no such thing as multi-tasking. Your brain is unable to focus on two projects at once, so what you’re doing isn’t multi-tasking. Working on multiple things at once is actually task switching; your brain is switching back and forth between tasks as you pick them up and put them down. So you’re not actually completing tasks more quickly; in fact, if you total up the amount of time you spend on each task, it probably takes you longer to complete tasks where your attention is divided. You may feel an increase in productivity by answering a couple emails while you’re waiting for your PowerPoint to load, but those shifts in focus take time. The time you spend re-focusing adds up, and is probably greater than the time it took that PowerPoint to load.

Breaking the task-switching cycle is hard. Even as I write this, I already caught myself popping in to check my email. But by putting deep focus into each task, we actually become more productive, finish tasks more quickly, and most likely, do better work.

But we only have 24 hours in a day (and if you’re like me, at least 7 of those hours need to be spent sleeping!). So how do we accomplish everything we need to accomplish if we can’t combine any of our tasks?

By multi-tasking things that don’t require thought.

I frequently take conference calls while walking the dog or read client manuscripts while riding the exercise bike at the gym. I frequently read newsletters and news articles while waiting in line at the post office and listen to training podcasts in the car. Walking, waiting, and working out don’t require the same amount of thought as a work project or client meeting, so it’s actually possible to multi-task. Plus, getting a bit of fresh air during a conference call or getting a workout in while reading a manuscript feels good. I know I’m working and serving our clients, while also doing something for myself. It also prevents you from task-switching because you’re away from your computer and away from distractions.

I encourage you all to take this week to catch yourself task-switching and making a solid attempt to stop. If you’re working on one task, close out all the other tabs on your browser. If you have a team meeting, don’t bring your laptop, just take notes. I also urge you to identify the places where there is potential for multi-tasking. Can you listen to a training podcast while on a walk? Can you read that report or watch a webinar on the treadmill? What are the things you can combine, providing more time for the things you can’t?

I’d love to hear how you are able to multi-task without task-switching, so share your feedback in the comments!


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