Multi-tasking. Deep down, we all know it doesn’t really make us more productive. Yet it sure can make us feel more productive. And for some people, and in some corporate cultures, it’s a point of pride to be doing half a dozen things at once.
But there are endless studies on the downside of multi-tasking. Just Google “task switching” or “switch costs,” and you’ll find pages of reference material describing the high price paid by multi-taskers in lost efficiency and mistakes made. Not convinced? Try this quick example called the “Stroop Test”:
Maybe it feels hard to break the multi-tasking habit, but why not try “single-tasking” for a week or two and see what happens? After all, if it turns out that all those studies are incorrect and multi-tasking really is more efficient, you can always go back!
Here’s a quick list of five tips to help you become a single-tasker.
- Learn to estimate task duration accurately. How much time does it really take? Sometimes we believe a task is going to take longer than it actually does. (Perhaps because we’ve multi-tasked it in the past?) When you focus on a task, you may find that it’s done more quickly than you expected.
- Be present for yourself and others. How highly do you value respect? When you check email while you’re on the phone, you’re not showing respect for the person you’re talking to, the person you’re emailing, or yourself. You lose time in misunderstandings because the brain can’t focus on more than one verbal task at a time, as the Stroop Test, linked above, demonstrates. And you’ll find yourself feeling frustrated and disconnected.
- Set a timer. Too much focus can be just as detrimental to productivity as not enough. Some studies claim that 25 minutes is the optimal duration for focused work, but discover for yourself what your most productive time limit is. Then set a timer … and take a five-minute break when the bell goes off.
- Move! If your work is sedentary, and especially if it’s in front of a computer most of the day, be sure to use those five-minute breaks to get up, move, stretch, walk briskly around the building. An oxygenated brain is a happier, more creative, and more productive brain.
- Manage interruptions. Your office may have an open-door culture, or you may be working in a cubicle with no door to close. Even so, you can still define certain times of the day when you’re unavailable for interruptions. Post a sign on your cubicle wall, or – yes – close that office door. Let your team and manager know that you’re taking this time each day as an appointment with your work, which is just as sacrosanct as an appointment with an important client or company VIP.
As you become accustomed to single-tasking, you’re likely to discover an unexpected side benefit: along with being more productive, you’ll also feel calmer and more in control of your workflow. Sound good? Get started on your new path as a single-tasker!
Recommended Training Resource: The Value of Time is a brief yet powerful depiction of how even apparently insignificant amounts of time can have tremendous impact on our experience.