Whether or not to multitask can sometimes be a heated debate—there are those who swear by it and those who despise it. Regardless of where you are on the spectrum, you probably believe that you need to do it for your job.
But what if multitasking isn’t the best use of your time? I believe that it is killing our productivity because when we do it, we are literally teaching ourselves not to focus! The ability to focus is an important skill if we want to problem solve, plan and, in general, get things done. (Remember how much more productive you are when you have peace and quiet in your office—when you’re not busy multitasking with emails, IM, texts and people.)
If you are tempted to multitask, keep in mind that…
- We lose IQ points. People who multitask with their technology, i.e. answer emails and texts while trying to do other work, suffer a 10-point drop in their IQ according to a study carried out by Dr. Glenn Wilson with the Institute of Psychiatry. What’s the effect of a 10-point drop? It’s similar to losing one night of sleep. We aren’t very productive with little sleep but don’t worry, the loss of IQ is temporary—we regain our smarts when we stop multitasking.
- We make more mistakes. Quality often suffers when you multitask because your brain is not able to do two things at the same time very efficiently. And when we don’t focus on the task at hand, we tend to make more mistakes, which leads to rework! If you want to do things faster, then it’s best to focus on one thing so you do it right the first.
- We are not present. It’s hard to be very productive when you’re not really “there.” When you multitask, you’re not 100 percent focused on any of your tasks. Think about a time when you were having a conversation with someone who was also checking their email. They weren’t present with you—they weren’t giving you their full attention. It’s best to finish checking email or writing that text, and then pay attention to the person you’re with.
- We decrease our ability to focus. Multitasking is the opposite of focusing. When you try to do more than one thing at the same time, you are training yourself not to focus on any of the tasks. The good news is that “learning to focus” is a skill which we can improve. To start, notice when you’re multitasking, then consciously choose to work on just one task until you reach a good stopping point. You can even use a timer to help develop your skills. (In the beginning, set the timer for 10 minutes, practice working (focusing) on one task, then increase the time as you get better.)
- We have more, longer meetings. Everyone complains of too many meetings, many of which run longer than everyone would like. Part of the issue is that people aren’t paying attention so things need to be repeated or re-explained. Work on being present for your meetings—leave your phone, computer and random thoughts back at your desk. Meetings will be a bit more productive and even a little shorter because everyone is “there.” If you aren’t interested to attend the meeting, then send someone else to it, get the meeting minutes instead, or tell the leader that you have to leave early.
Don’t get caught up in the fallacy that you can be more productive when you multitask—it just isn’t true. (One article from the American Psychological Association estimates that you lose 40 percent of your time when you multitask! See “Multitasking: Switching Costs.”) Instead of switching back and forth between tasks, practice “sequential tasking.” Work on one thing to a good stopping point, then move to the next task. When we focus on one task at a time, we’ll make fewer mistakes, have less rework and ultimately get things done more quickly.
When you’re aware of how much you multitask and actively work to decrease it, you’ll soon learn how to focus better, for longer periods of time. So reconsider the next time you’re tempted to check your email, answer a text or respond to a colleague when you’re in the middle of doing something else. Save 10 IQ points and practice sequential tasking instead!