Coaching & Development Solutions

Why Multitasking Wastes Our Time And How To Stop

We seem to be continually multitasking now, whether it's typing messages into our phones while we walk down the street, sending texts while driving, or reading email during meetings, it's become the natural mode of being. This isn't surprising since time is scarce and the idea that you can do multiple things at the same time sounds very efficient. Why wouldn't we want to accomplish as much as possible in a day?

The problem is that most of the time we do not truly multitask. If we carry out two activities at the same time, with no loss of quality or productivity in either, then this is truly efficient. Going for a gentle walk while having a conversation with a friend is probably true multitasking since neither activity impairs the other. However, many things we like to consider multitasking involve a loss of focus on one task, and it's remarkable more people don't walk into street signs as they walk and type in their phones. Multitasking has been shown to lower our IQs, but the variety of switching activities frequently and feeling we are moving ahead in many areas at once means we don't realise the loss of productivity. I often think of this as Reactive Task Hopping: we are working on a task, and then an email arrives which we start to read, and then someone drops by our desk for a chat, and by the time we return to the original task we have forgotten what we were doing. Research at the University of Ohio shows that this hopping about produces an emotional boost, but it is less productive than mono-tasking because of the hangover it produces.

So how can we gain the emotional benefit of varying tasks while avoiding the quality and productivity loss of multitasking? One way is to use the Pomodoro Technique created by time management guru Francesco Cirillo:

The essence of the idea is that by dividing your day into chunks of time which are focused on only one task you are very productive on each task during the timeslot, and avoid distractions which would slow you down. You can still work on different areas in one day, which gives the emotional boost of variety, but only in a dedicated timeslot.

I use this approach frequently and only check for new emails within a few set windows during the day. I still respond to most emails within 1-2 days, and allow myself the time to focus on longer and more complex tasks. If I didn't do this I know that I would easily distract myself from these trickier tasks by replying to relatively unimportant emails instead. The email replies often don't take much time and effort, and I can almost justify it as still doing work, but in reality I'm fooling myself.

About The Author

Alasdair Graham is the founder of Apex Discovery and a coach who helps leaders and businesses grow. If you found this blog post useful then please share it.

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