When Less is More: The Dangers of Multitasking

Especially in the American culture of overworking and under-vacationing, we’re constantly being inundated with messages of “Best Tips to a Better Multitasking You” or “Top 5 Ways Multitaskers Win”. Whether it’s taking phone calls while commuting, writing emails during meetings, or switching rapidly between projects, multitasking seems like the perfect way to get more done in less time.

But does multitasking actually make you more efficient? Current research says no. A 2010 report in the journalScience revealed that the human brain can handle only two tasks at once, because it divides the responsibility between its two frontal lobes; if a third task is added, the brain gets overwhelmed and starts making errors. Additionally, multitasking over a long period of time can have lasting effects on your ability to work effectively. According to a recent study called Cognitive control in media multitaskers, chronic multitaskers have problems with filtering information, memory management, and task switching – all necessary talents for an effective business leader.

So what can you and your employees do to reduce the negative effects of multitasking? Well, the obvious answer is to stop multitasking. But in today’s information-saturated, communication-centric world, that’s easier said than done. So here are a few strategies to help you focus on one task at a time.

The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method invented by productivity consultant Francesco Cirillo. The idea is simple: commit yourself to a 25-minute session of uninterrupted work on a single task. Close your email. Put away your phone. If someone comes by your desk, ask them to send you an email that you can check later. Don’t let anything distract you until the end of the session.

You can purchase a physical Pomodoro timer to time your 25-minute sessions, or invest in a Pomodoro app, available for iPhone and Android. As a small business owner, you can also encourage your employees to try the technique and implement rules on not distracting coworkers during sessions.

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is increasingly being touted as the solution to our overly multitasking culture, and it’s less of a new-age mindset than you might think. Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts,describes mindfulness as “non-judgmental attention to the experiences of the present moment.” And here’s the thing: it’s effective. A recent study looked at how knowledge workers dealt with being assigned multiple tasks in a short amount of time. Those trained in mindfulness were better able to focus on the tasks and remember pertinent details. In short, they were better at juggling multiple tasks.

So how can you be mindful? Just focus your attention on the present moment and try to be open to your current experiences. This means that you need to stop worrying about next week’s meeting and instead focus on the email you’re writing. It also means accepting even your most difficult and tedious tasks. Once you’ve accepted the necessity of, say, inputting data into a huge spreadsheet, your mind will have a much easier time getting through it.

Keep An Active To-Do List

It may seem obvious, but the importance of a well-maintained to-do list cannot be overstated. It will both help you remember to complete all your tasks, and keep you from switching between objectives while you’re hard at work. If you think of something that needs to be done – say an email or an errand – just jot it down on the to-do list rather than breaking away from your current task.

Though multitasking may always prove tempting, it is detrimental to your productivity and the health of your company. By managing your time, sectioning off tasks, and putting your head down for uninterrupted sessions, you’ll be able to get work done more efficiently and with better results.

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