Want Better Productivity? Stop Multi-Tasking!

Multi Tasking - Busy BusinesswomanOne of the things I used to tell my mom was that, of course I could do my homework while watching TV. I tried to make out like I was this amazing multi-tasker, reading while I did my chores (have you ever tried to hold a book in one hand while wielding a vacuum in the other?), and completing all manner of tasks while doing something else at the same time.

At the time, my teenage brain was sure that I did all of these things efficiently, and that I was one of those “special” people who could effectively multi-task. Looking back, though, I’m pretty sure that I was just as inefficient as everyone else who tries to multi-task. My homework was completed at a slower pace, and I didn’t get as much out of my reading as I could have. These days, I find that I get more done if I stop multi-tasking and just focus on one thing.

Multi-Tasking Doesn’t Work

Studies performed over the last couple of decades indicate that multi-tasking is, for just about everyone, a less efficient way of getting things done. One famous study, completed at Stanford University, tried to find one thing that a multi-tasker’s brain was better at — and they couldn’t find anything.

According to the research that’s out there, multi-tasking doesn’t work. Those that multi-task have a harder time switching from one task to another, keeping out irrelevant images, and even have a hard time retrieving needed information. Multi-tasking doesn’t help at all. Instead, it’s more likely to hinder your efforts. You are more likely to move slower at all of the tasks you are engaged in, and you are less likely to do a good job.

Focusing on One Thing at a Time

Instead of trying to multi-task, the research suggests that you might be better off focusing on one thing at a time. If you focus on one task, you are more likely to get it done faster, and do a better job with it.

I find this is true in my own work environment. If I focus on one task at a time, I move much faster. I turn off the TV and I avoid other distractions that pull me away from the task at hand. I get my work done faster, and I have more time later for other things. The great thing about technology is that it provides a way to save things for later. You can save a TV show or movie for later, after you’ve finished your most important tasks.

Productivity Helps

One of the things I’ve discovered recently is the Pomodoro technique. With this technique, you concentrate on one task for a set period of time, about 25 minutes (you can even buy a cute timer, if you want). After 25 minutes, you take a five minute break. This combination of 25 minutes of work plus a five minute break is one “pomodoro”. After three or four pomodoros, you take a larger break of 15 minutes or so.

The idea is that you can get a good chunk accomplished when you have 25 minutes to do it. Then, you take a short break to re-set yourself. After going like this for a couple of hours, it’s time for a longer break that can better help you re-set yourself. I find, though, that I can get most of my work done when I engage in two larger sets of pomodoros.

In some cases, though, it’s more about finding an area where you can concentrate than it is about any specific timing technique. Set up a work area that doesn’t have many distractions. While I sometimes work on the laptop while sitting on the couch, I find I’m more effective in my home office area. I have an area that is definitely associated with “work”, so I am in that mindframe while I sit there.

Others simple block out time where they are working, making sure that their kids are taken care of during this time. I do most of my work while my son is at school and my husband is at university, teaching his classes. Without these distractions, it’s much easier to finish my work.

There are other keys, such as working during times you are most alert and productive, as well as scheduling tasks like social media and relaxation so you aren’t distracted by them.

What do you think? What works for you?


Want Better Productivity? Stop Multi-Tasking! — 11 Comments

  1. I think it depends upon what the tasks are that you are trying to multi-task. For instance, folding laundry and catching up on the evening news and weather at the same time? Totally doable. Vacuuming and cleaning the garage, not so much. 🙂

    • Good point. There are some more mechanical things that are more conducive to multi-tasking. When it comes to productive work that takes more thought, though, it’s a good idea to focus on it to get it done faster — and better.

  2. I am an excellent multi-tasker when I need to be, but that doesn’t mean it works all that well. Basically you end up doing a crappy job on all of the tasks you’re working on. Or you do a great job on one while neglecting the others.

    • Yeah. You are more likely to produce consistent quality when you narrow your focus. I move faster if I just concentrate on one thing, get that taken care of with reasonably high quality, and then move on to the next. Line ’em up and knock ’em down.

  3. As a fidget and a sensitive soul I’m always distracted by noises around me when I’m trying to work. There are a couple of music genres that played at a low volume can keep me ‘locked’ into focus (ambient music etc.).
    Great piece, though, and good tips to take note of. I’ve always rubbished anyone’s claims that they can multi-task. As the popular Irish jokes goes:

    An Irishman is doing his ironing when the phone rings.
    “Hello there?”
    Irishman burns his ear.. “Ow!”

    What are the origins of the word “pomodoro”, if you could tell me?

    • Pomodoro is Italian for tomato. The guy that popularized the technique had a timer that looked like a tomato and….viola! You can buy timers that look like tomatoes, but I’m good with just a regular timer on my phone.

  4. Miranda – Great point and completely agree with you. Every time you switch from one task to another it needs about 5-10 minutes before you can start focusing on the other task. Imagine how much time you are wasting if you continue to do multi-tasking not to mention that the you will not be able to do true justice to any of the tasks as a result.

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