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Multitasking: You’re Less Productive Than You Think

How good are you at multitasking?

Surprisingly, those of us who believe we’re the best at juggling several jobs at once are almost always, in fact, the worst.

In reality, only about 2.5 percent of people are gifted “supertaskers” – those who are truly able to do several things at the same time without sacrificing efficiency or quality – according to a study by Jason M. Watson and David L. Strayer.

For the rest of us, our brains just weren’t meant to multitask well. Instead, multitasking stresses us out, often making us feel mentally exhausted or even experience an IQ drop similar to the slump losing a night of sleep can cause, a group of Stanford researchers found.

Not only does multitasking wear us out, it makes us perform poorly, lowering our work quality and efficiency. That’s because our brains can’t actually do multiple things at once but have to constantly switch back and forth between tasks.

While we can often shift focus very quickly (as fast as a tenth of a second), those shifts still eat up a lot of mental bandwidth when added together, research from Penn State shows. Multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error.

(Still convinced you’re awesome at multitasking? Take the GateKeeper test for supertaskers created by researchers Andrew Heathcoate and David Strayer and developer David Elliot).

Some sensible objections

As a business leader, you’re really busy. All the time.

Multitasking is unavoidable to some degree; distraction is a natural part of life; and in many work seasons, the resilient among us rise above endless demands by saying, “Done is better than perfect.”

That’s when it helps to remember that some tasks are tougher to do at the same time than others.

According to a 2012 study published in Computers in Human Behavior, using the same sensory system for two tasks (e.g., two visual tasks, like texting and watching a video presentation) actually uses up your attention capacity more quickly and completely than if your multitasking requires two separate systems (e.g., your visual and audio systems – used when driving and talking). Spreading out your multitasking work between the audio and visual channels may reduce the breakdown in performance.

This may explain why eating a meal during a meeting feels more manageable than writing an email during a meeting. While it’s better for you to avoid both multitasking situations, in a busy season, you can prioritize avoiding the latter.

Beat the multitasking trap

When you can help it, make an effort to avoid multitasking altogether. This might sound impossible, but keep reading.

Being mindful of what’s distracting you and when you commonly juggle tasks is the first step to beating the multitasking trap and making your time more productive.

Know what tasks you’re combining and why. This awareness can help you pinpoint areas where you have the most opportunity to improve. Ask yourself:

  • How many things have I had to redo because I wasn’t focused the first time?
  • What mistakes could I have avoided if I had focused on one task at a time?
  • What issues can I totally attribute to overwork or stress?

Read More: Reasons Why Your Workaholic Culture Doesn’t Work and How to Fix It

Basic time management strategies are obviously a boon to those who want to do less multitasking. Turn off email and app notifications, commit to checking for new messages and updates at set times throughout the day, and focus your energy on the task at hand.

These time management tips will help keep your responsibilities in balance:

  1. Have a short to-do list of your top priorities
  2. Don’t robo-check your email
  3. Stop wasting time writing the same emails (use e-tools such as Quick Parts or short-keys)
  4. Organize important emails
  5. Use your calendar, and use it wisely
  6. Ask clarifying questions at the start of a meeting
  7. Book meetings for less time than you think they will take
  8. Book all of your meetings back-to-back

For more information on how to put these tips into practice, read 8 Tried and True Time Management Tips for Business Leaders.

Change your thinking

But perhaps the best way to fight the temptation to multitask is to overcome thinking that you have to or need to multitask at all.

As a business leader, you’re usually running the show, but look at what you can take off your plate.

If you’re doing something that doesn’t require your full attention – ask, do I really need to be doing this at all? If the task is important, and you really have to be all there for it, then really be there – don’t let anything else compete for your attention. If it doesn’t deserve that priority level from you, delegate whenever possible.

Delegating lets you transfer a task, project or activity to someone else for completion while full accountability still lies with you, the delegator.

To do it effectively, it’s imperative that you know your employees’ strengths and the areas where they want to develop.

Most importantly, good communication is key. Be clear about the timelines and outputs you expect, and then let your employees determine how to get the job done.

In turn, you’re free to focus on your biggest priorities – going to task on them one project at a time. This will boost productivity for everyone.

For more information about how to add hours of productivity back to your week, download our free guide, HR Outsourcing: A Step-by-Step Guide to Professional Employer Organizations (PEOs).