Multi-tasking might sound like a good idea, but the simple reality is that it’s slowing you down and lowering the quality of what you do. In our busy lives we have to contend with multiple information streams, projects, deadlines and all the other stuff you need to get done. It can often feel like we need to be tackling multiple tasks simultaneously to get anywhere. Common examples of multitasking are instant messaging with colleagues or friends whilst writing a report or stopping your current task every time a new email notification pops up to check the email before switching back to what you’re doing. If you’re used to this approach then you may feel that it doesn’t affect your work, but conclusive research shows that using this method causes not only our productivity to suffer but also the quality of our work. Our brain isn’t wired for multi-tasking, and instead it prefers to direct its full focus on one task at a time.
To understand why our productivity suffers when multi-tasking is used let’s take a closer look at what we are actually doing when we multi-task. Surprisingly the majority of the time we aren’t actually doing tasks simultaneously, but switching back and forth between tasks. When we switch between tasks we have to stop, refresh our short-term memory of where we got to, then continue. Depending on the complexity of the task the switching process can take longer, so that the more we switch between tasks the more time we spend trying to figure out where we where. The switching disrupts our focus by clogging up our short-term memory, and also means that part of our brain is listening out for the next disruption rather than focussing our full and undivided attention on the task at hand. The result of all of this is that tasks completed in this way can take longer than necessary, and suffer from reduced quality. There are some specific cases where we can multi-task, simple tasks such as folding laundry whilst talking on the phone. This is possible because very little brainpower is required to fold laundry, which we have learned to do through repetition without requiring any thinking. As soon as two tasks require brainpower it becomes impossible to do them simultaneously without loss of time or quality.
So now that we understand what multi-tasking is, and how it can affect us, we can look into an alternative way of working. Mono-tasking is when you take one task and give it your full and undivided attention. All distractions are removed and time is no object. You can now direct your focus with laser sharp precision on a single task and complete it to the best of your ability. The chances are you will have done this before, can you remember the last time you were so engrossed in something that lunchtime crept up on you unexpectedly? I bet it felt good to be in full flow without any distractions. That is what mono-tasking can feel like. Our full attention and focus are targeted at completing a task to the best of our ability. The result is that we get so caught up in the task that progress comes quickly and easily.
In a modern office there are obstacles that stand in the way of us trying to mono-task. These distractions may include instant messaging, email notifications, colleagues, phone calls. You get the idea. Whilst you may not be able to solve or eliminate all of these distractions they can be dealt with in various ways. When you need to focus simply close down instant messaging, turn off email notifications and consider letting phone calls go through to voicemail. Don’t worry you can pick them up during your next break. Depending on your job role and commitments you will need to develop your own way of dealing with common office distractions. Another way of dealing with these issues is to find a quiet place to work when you need to focus, this could be working from home when you need to write a long report, or popping down to a coffee shop for a couple of hours to work distraction free with no internet connection.
Now you are armed with the knowledge and benefits of switching to mono-tasking try to think about how you can test it out. If you have become accustomed to using instant messages, and email notifications then at first it will be very hard to move away from this approach. Be proactive and start small, try a doing a few tasks by mono-tasking and you should start to notice the difference. Set yourself a goal of mono-tasking for the next week, and see what impact it has on your life. If you’re still in doubt that this approach really works check out the research for yourself, there is plenty out there.
Further reading on the web:
Stanford – Multitask research study
Lifehacker – What multitasking does to our brains
Borst J.P. & Taatgen N.A. The costs of multitasking in threaded cognition. ICCM 2007.
Cutrell E.B, Czerwinski M, Horvitz E. Effects of instant messaging interruptions on computing tasks. CHI 2000.
Shamsi T. Iqbal, Horvitz E. Disruption and recovery of computing tasks: Field study, analysis and directions. CHI 2007.
Salvucci D.D & Taatgen N.A. The Multitasking Mind. Oxford University Press 2010.