Want to be more productive? Forget Multitasking

Multitasking is a bust. It’s a con. It sounds so good in theory, smashing through emails, taking calls, making plans, creating something big and being super efficient. But for most of us efficient productive multitasking is a myth.

I know because I’ve been there: Overwhelmed, spreading myself too thin and feeling like my thoughts were a tangle of old string. Trying to fix it by switching from one task to another, anxious that by doing one thing I was neglecting another. This covered big tasks relating to my business and small things like household chores; why is there a pile of clean laundry on the carpet? Oh yeah, I dumped it there when I decided I needed to use the washing basket to clear a draw into for a sort out.

Our brains are sharp, clever, efficient…and terrible at doing more than one complex task at a time. Studies of multitasking have found that switching between tasks can cost up to 40% of your productive time. This is because switching tasks – even just for a few moments – takes time and effort. When you switch tasks you switch to a new goal and from one set of ‘rules’ to another.

Let’s say you’re writing a presentation; your goal is to write a presentation that communicates information clearly to your audience and it’s like you’re following your invisible ‘How To Write A Presentation’ rules. Then you remember you were supposed to call up for a doctor’s appointment so you pause writing and make the call; you’ve switched to the goal of getting an appointment and your mind has had to put down it’s book of ‘How To Write A Presentation’ rules and pick up the rulebook for ‘How To Get An Appointment’. Once that’s done you go back to the presentation and it takes a while to settle back into the mindset you were in before making the call. It’s harder to focus and the writing feels more difficult. This is the switching cost; you’re less efficient and more likely to make a mistake after switching between tasks.

The costs of multitasking

Multitasking is distracting and unproductive in the short term, but it’s also believed to have unwanted long-term effects.

These include:

  • Finding it harder to focus one one task even when you’re trying to
  • Finding it harder to learn as learning requires focus
  • Struggling to be present in the moment; multitasking takes you out of the moment as you’re not entirely focussed on what’s happening right now, so over time it becomes more challenging to be mindful
  • More difficulty organising your thoughts

It makes me think of all those times when I’ve felt overwhelmed by all that I have to do (or think I have to do), by thoughts and feelings, have tried to get more and more done and ended up feeling like a more disorganised mess than ever.

Sound familiar?

In a nutshell: You are in a hole and you try to dig yourself out, then end up buried even deeper.

Instead of messy multitasking, try this:

1. Choose one thing to focus on at a time and practice it.

Notice when you’re switching tasks part way through and pull yourself back. Reassure yourself that you will do the next thing but only after the task you’re working on now.

Then do this again. And again. And again.

When I decided I needed to slow down and focus on one thing at a time I began by noticing when I was about to switch tasks then pulled myself back from that tipping point. I noticed that I’d be in the middle of something then get an urgent thought about something different and start abandoning what I was doing.

When this happened I started saying in my head “Come back, come on, re-focus” and this helped me to steer myself into the new waters of singletasking, which has now become my habitual way of doing things.

2. Understand why you flit between tasks.

The reason this cycle goes on indefinitely is that below the layer of “I have so much to do” is all the thoughts and emotions that come with it. Particularly if your empathic or a highly sensitive person, as you’re extra aware of things like the consequences of something not being done, or the tension between people, you’re own tiredness or hunger.

Maybe you:

  • Are afraid of running out of time
  • Worry about letting people down
  • Don’t know what to focus on
  • Want to prove that you’re capable
  • Don’t trust yourself to do something later

Once you understand what drives the habit of multitasking for you you can begin to really break it down and replace it with focussed singletasking and lessen the feeling of being overwhelmed.

I was afraid of running out of time to achieve what I want to achieve but that was intensified by not knowing where to focus. If this is a challenge for you to try this: 7 steps to finding clarity when you feel overwhelmed

With multitasking there’s an illusion of efficiency and productivity but in reality it chips away at these things. Singletasking grows your ability to focus, learn and organise your thoughts so that you can make better decisions and complete the things you need to focus on. Over time it helps you to be more present in your life and live more mindfully.

Click here to find out how coaching with me can help you stop feeling busy all the time, clear your mind and focus on what really matters to you, and how you can book a free 15 minute consultation.

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Want to be more productive? Forget Multitasking

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