Barbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND
Are you a single or multi-tasker? Which gets more done, better?
We may be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, but can we effectively and accurately complete more complex tasks or projects while answering emails or scrolling social media?
Simultaneously doing two or more tasks at the same time is considered multitasking. As our lives and work have become more technology-based, multitasking has become more common as multiple sources of digital interruptions easily vie for our attention.
A student “studies” while watching TV or texting with friends.
A receptionist shops online while greeting customers.
An employee has multiple browser tabs open and works on another task while attending a virtual meeting.
Are the multiple activities in these examples all done well? Or, does one task suffer, possibly the most important one?
When does multitasking work and when doesn’t it?
Multitasking works when one or both tasks are relatively mindless and require minimal brain power. We can wash dishes and listen to a podcast. We can talk on the phone while cleaning the house. We can watch TV while folding laundry.
However, when one or both tasks require our full attention, multitasking is nearly impossible. Our brains must switch back and forth between tasks resulting in a reduction in accuracy and quality. If we are honest, multitasking is task-switching at best. Our brains must quickly switch attention from one task to the other.
Creative work, decision-making, and tasks that require concentration cannot be performed simultaneously with other tasks. Our working memory cannot efficiently switch between tasks. Trying to do so causes stress and can lead to burnout.
This is not a new problem, even though technology is blamed for much of our multitasking. In the first century BC, Publilius Syrus advised, “he who chases two rabbits catches neither.”
Can YOU efficiently multi-task?
Many people think they can... until they are tested. True multitaskers, referred to as supertaskers, are rare.
Popular methods to test your ability to focus on two things at once are the Stroop Test and a Task-Switching Exercise. Give one or both a try to see if you are an efficient multitasker.
The Stroop Test
The Stroop Test assesses how efficiently you can identify the font color used for a color word (see the illustration). The brain must work harder when the font color is different than the word. This simulates the dual focus required for multitasking. You can take the test online.
A test of your ability to switch from one task to another consists of drawing two lines across a piece of paper, one above the other. On the first line, write the sentence: I am a great multitasker. On the second line, write the numerals from 1 to 20 in order. Record the total time it takes you to do both tasks one after the other.
Next, perform the tasks as a multitask. Do this by making two lines on a new piece of paper and time how long it takes to complete as follows: write the first letter from the sentence on the first line, followed by the first numeral of the sequence on the second line, followed by the second letter, the second numeral, and so forth until the sentence is complete and all 20 numerals are written.
How much more time did it take? How frustrating was it to switch your focus from one task to the other? Which approach was more efficient and less likely to result in mistakes?
What is more effective than multitasking?
A more effective approach is to work on one task at a time, otherwise known as single-tasking, solo-tasking, or mono-tasking. They all mean the same thing – focused work.
Notice the image at the top – FOCUS – which can stand for Follow One Course Until Successful. Doing one thing at a time and giving it your full attention can lead to greater productivity and better-quality work. When results matter, do one task and only one task at a time. Focus.
What can help me focus?
Distractions come from more than electronic devices. Background noises, face-to-face interruptions, and thinking about other tasks also take your focus off the task at hand. When your work requires your full attention, you need to deliberately avoid distractions and be fully present.
Try one or more of the following strategies for achieving focus:
Set aside time in your schedule for focused work. Experiment to find the time of day and length of time that work best.
Make to-do lists so your brain isn’t trying to remember all the other tasks you need to accomplish. Focus on what you are doing and let your list remember the rest.
Make your surroundings distraction-free. De-clutter. If possible, secure a private location where you are not likely to be interrupted.
Use a physical sign or digital message for “do not disturb.” If that feels rude, write “Please schedule a time to meet, I’m focused on a project.”
Reduce background noise. Wear headphones.
Music can enhance or impair focused work, choose wisely.
Close your inbox. Studies show employees spend approximately 40% of their workday multitasking with email and instant messaging. Feels productive, but it’s not.
Manage all incoming forms of communication – email, phone, social media notifications, etc. Set aside specific times of day to check messages and emails.
Plan breaks to clear your mind between tasks. The Pomodoro Method recommends concentrated work for 25 minutes followed by a 5-minute break.
Take advantage of apps designed for focused work, such as Things 3, Freedom, Cold Turkey Blocker, Rescue Time, Forest, and Focus, among others.
Above all, make it your priority to be fully present in life and work. To be fully present is to be focused and paying attention, in the moment -- to the project you are working on, the people you are with, or the place where you are.
“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.” ~ Alexander Graham Bell
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