Many people think the best way to get things done and produce more is to muti-task. Laura Stack thinks we have bought into what she calls the myths of multi-tasking; that is, we are doing more than one thing at a time, and we’re increasing our efficiency and productivity by working more quickly.
What we really mean is that we are switching between tasks. When we do that, none of the tasks gets our full attention. In the Journal of Experimental Attention (August 2001), research has shown that multi-tasking actually reduced productivity.
Switching takes time, even if we aren’t aware of what our minds need to do. It was interesting that when experiments were done with people who were carrying out multiple tasks, it was found that performance was detrimentally affected. When people in their twenties were talking on their mobile phones, they had reactions of 70-year-olds. And they were using hands-free phones! In fact, the studies showed their reactions were worse than drunk drivers who exceeded the drink limit by one-and-a-half times! (Human Factors, Winter 2005)
If your job entails you doing lots of different things, concentrate fully on each one as it comes up. This technique is known as ‘spotlighting’. Give whatever you are doing 100% attention, even if it’s for a brief time.
If you remember something you need to get done while you are doing something else, make a note of it, and come back to it later.
Think results, not activity. Focusing on the outcome you want means saying ‘I’ll finish two sections of this report by lunch’ rather than ‘I’ll work on this report for a while’.
Giving yourself deadlines also encourages you to stay focused.Having too much time to accomplish something means you may become wavering and demotivated to complete it.
Make plans but don’t try to make everything perfect. If something isn’t working, try something else. As the Chinese proverb goes “No matter how far down the wrong road you have gone, stop!”
Doing one thing at a time is a good starting point to cut down on stress. Focus and see what happens to your productivity.
So, how good are your multi-tasking skills? That might not be the right question. Instead, ask ‘What should I do to be the most productive?’ Focusing on one task at a time may well be the answer.
Originally published: 13 October, 2011
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