Debunking Multitasking Myths: 10 Tips for Getting More Done

The term "multitasking" was originally used to describe computers’ parallel processing abilities. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the term began appearing on resumes as jobseekers restyled themselves into high-tech, high-performing team players.
In the business world, where time management is always a priority, multitasking skills are expected, especially in younger workers reared in multiple media environments (i.e., computers, iPods, iPhones, TV, video games, online social sites, texting and instant messaging).
Beginning in 2005, however, studies began to show that distractions negatively affected productivity and efficiency. A study funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the University of London’s Institute of Psychiatry found that "workers distracted by email and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers." The report termed this new "infomania" a serious threat to workplace productivity.
A second study from the University of California at Irvine monitored interruptions among office personnel. Researchers found that it took an average of 25 minutes for workers to recover from interruptions (phone calls, emails) and return to their original tasks.
In 2007, Jonathan B. Spira, CEO and chief analyst at the business research firm Basex, estimated that extreme multitasking and information overload cost the U.S. economy $650 billion a year in lost productivity.
The brain doesn’t handle more than one problem well. While we can certainly walk and chew gum at the same time, we cannot pay attention to multiple challenges. Instead, the brain must switch tasks, using up time and energy. And when task-switching is poorly executed, we waste time and make mistakes.
With too many simultaneous demands on the brain, a "response-selection bottleneck" occurs. Some psychologists, such as David Meyer at the University of Michigan, believe that with training, the brain can learn to task-switch more effectively. Scientific evidence reveals that certain simple tasks are amenable to improvement with practice.
But Dr. Meyer’s and others’ research has also found that multitasking contributes to the release of stress hormones and adrenaline. These chemicals, released into our bodies over the long term, can be detrimental to our health, contributing to heart disease and short-term memory loss.
The Art of Paying Attention
When we are talking about multitasking, we are really concerned with the brain functions of attention and focus. These highly prized functions include:

  • Shifting our attention from one priority to another
  • Judging which objects are worthy of our attention
  • Ignoring distractions that aren’t pertinent to the issue at hand

Individuals who learn to focus their attention and concentration clearly have an advantage over those trying to multitask in chaotic work environments.
Smart Multitasking
All the research in the world won’t discourage us from juggling more than one ball. So, if we’re going to multitask, how can we do it effectively?

  1. Work on your most important task first thing in the morning. Give yourself a time frame to work on this task, either to completion or a reasonable stopping point. Next, move to the second highest-priority task. If you can gain a foothold on two or three important tasks each morning, you’ll feel more available and in control of the rest of your day.
  2. Use a capture tool, such as a handwritten notebook or computer program, for on-the-spot notes regarding what needs to be accomplished.
  3. Use to-do lists for different contexts (phone calls, computer tasks, errands, home, team, recreation).
  4. Plan your day in blocks, with open blocks for urgent issues that arise. Try half-hour blocks or hour blocks – whatever works best for you. If necessary, use a timer to alert you when it’s time to move on.
  5. Turn off all distractions when working on a task in a time block. Shut off email, the Internet and your cell phone. Let everything go to voice mail. Focus on your designated task without worrying about all the other stuff on your plate.
  6. Plan for the urgent. When something unexpected pops up, take control by putting it on your agenda. Let people know you’ll attend to them in 5 or 10 minutes, which gives you time to wrap up your current project. Deal with email and voice mail at regular, predetermined intervals.
  7. When something interrupts you and it cannot be postponed, note where you are with the task at hand. Write down key words to facilitate returning to your ideas. This will save your brain some time in trying to reconstruct your previous processes.
  8. Take deep breaths, stretch and allow frequent breaks to refocus on what really matters. Far too often, a task will take us down "rabbit trails" that don’t lead to real results. Stay on target and focused by stepping back, reviewing and taking short mental breaks.
  9. Don’t try to finish everything at once. Working in intervals on specific parts of a task will give your subconscious mind the time it needs to reflect on and solve challenges.
  10. Instead of multitasking, learn to delegate. Which parts of your workload can be handled by someone who would embrace the opportunity? Ask for help. You’ll be surprised at how often assistance is available. You don’t have to do it all.

Perhaps the only true multitasking occurs outside conscious thought. Neuroscientists estimate that our five senses take in 11 million pieces of information every second – and only 40 are processed consciously.
Our subconscious mind filters only what requires our conscious attention, which explains why we often come up with solutions after a break or good night’s sleep.

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