There have been tons of articles about it over the past few years – Multitasking is not as efficient as we would all like to believe. We have reached a time where it is not only common to be doing 4 or 5 tasks at once, but it’s pretty much expected. Job descriptions list it as a required skill! We are encouraged with “open door” policies to stop by our coworkers’ desks. We have opened ourselves up to phone calls, email, IM, text messages, tweets, pokes, & about a billion other ways to be distracted, and that’s even before we start working on a bunch of things at once.

The terrifying truth of the matter is that we can’t actually do 2 things at once that both require actual thought and focus. A recent article at Innovation Tools states:

“Cognitive research has verified that people are incapable of multi-tasking. Yes, almost anyone can walk and chew gum at the same time. But for any task that takes cognitive function such as thinking, writing, speaking, planning, or designing, we actually switch back and forth between tasks.”

Did you get that? You CANNOT think about 2 different things at the same time. Sure you can perform multiple tasks at once – you can talk on the phone and do the dishes, you can switch back and forth between IM windows, etc. But try writing an email and talking on the phone at the same time. Doesn’t work – you are not paying attention to one of them. We’ve all been that person on the conference call who was busy with something else and got caught.. don’t pretend you haven’t..

A Time Magazine article from 2006 entitled Help! I’ve Lost My Focus! quotes a study that says that interruptions consume an average of 2.1 hours per day, or 28% of the workday. That not only includes the distractions, but the recovery time associated with getting back to work (which is estimated anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes according to a bunch of articles I have read). Scary huh?

OK, so enough background info – let’s talk about what we do to fix it. From a number of sources, including my own experience working in a busy office and alone from home, I have gathered a number of recommendations for keeping the multitasking monkey off your back. (How’s THAT for a visual..)

  • First of all, it’s OK to be distracted. There are times during the day that are not going to require your focus and full attention, so don’t worry at all if you are distracted a bit while plugging through email, catching up on industry news, working on some menial tasks. It’s OK to be social in the office, or to listen to music while you work, etc. You are not stealing company time, so chill out. :)
  • When you DO have to focus though, recognize it. I highly recommend keeping a simple task list, and recognizing what tasks are going to require significant time and attention. When you start on one of those tasks, shut everything else you are doing down. I mean close all the other windows, turn off your email, don’t answer your phone, set the IM to “Do not Disturb” and for heaven’s sake shut off the Twitter. Get rid of your self-created distractions.
  • Plan your day. Stop letting your email manage your time. Before you start working on tasks, take stock of what you have to do and plan when and how you will do it. Check back with your email periodically throughout the day and reevaluate the rest of your time. Rinse, Repeat.
  • If you need to really focus, and you are the type of person that is “pinged” by a lot of different people, I have found that scheduling a time and place to work is a great trick. I mean schedule yourself a conference room, and go in there and shut the door.
  • Work on tasks that you can complete in the time you have. If you only have 10 minutes before a meeting, don’t bother starting on something you aren’t going to finish. Work on something you can get done in that time.
  • Group your tasks – work on similar tasks in succession. That way you can stay focused on a topic or area. It saves on the ramp up time.
  • In meetings in which you really have to participate, don’t do anything but be in the meeting. If you need your laptop to take notes, shut off all your messaging and email. Don’t allow any cell phones in the meeting either – poor crackberries can’t help themselves. Ideally just go in there with pen and paper.
  • If you have a conference call, only work on things that you don’t have to think about. Don’t check your email, twitter, IM, etc. Do filing, clean your desk if you have to, but first and foremost be on the call. If you don’t need to pay attention to the call, don’t join! :)
  • If you have an “open door” policy, have some rules. You have to shut the door sometimes to focus, so make sure your employees know it.
  • If you find that you can’t focus, don’t push too hard. Sometimes you have had too much caffeine, didn’t sleep well enough, or just have too much going on. It doesn’t make sense to keep trying to focus when you can’t – work on simpler tasks until you can dedicate yourself.
  • In the example above, sometimes changing the scenery helps – work from home if you can’t focus in the office, head to a coffee shop if you can’t focus at home, etc. It’s amazing what a simple thing like surroundings does to the productivity.
  • Lastly, a personal pet peeve – don’t txt or check email on your phone while you are talking to someone face to face! It’s just rude. :) just posted Singletasking: The Next Trend in Web Working? which gives some good tips. They also have an older article, The Art of Meeting Multitasking with some more.

I would love to hear some more ideas for focusing and improving productivity – what do you do? Leave a comment or hit me up on Twitter.

9 thoughts on “Stop Multitasking Like a Chump

  1. That part about 10-30 minutes for recovery time post distraction scares me a little bit. Depending on the task at hand and the distraction itself surely that amount of time varies. But definitely something that most of us don’t consider when managing our time and distractions.

    One thing that I do that really helps me out is to set a timeline. Some of these distractions are self-imposed out of curiosity. I ‘want’ to check Twitter to see what my friends are up to, or to see what’s going on. If I need to get something done though having a self-imposed time line of say…30-60 minutes on the clock of pure focus, I find that I will stick to it. The deadline, although self-imposed, helps me give pure unadulterated attention to whatever I’m working on because I know I’ve given myself permission to geek out on Twitter (or whatever else I choose) at the end.

  2. Here via Jen G.

    This is really a great perspective, I appreciate her sharing and your posting it.
    Gives me a lot of food for thought. I’ll try to focus on just one entree at a time, though.

  3. The first point about being “ok with distraction” has one edit from me. Personal experience is that listening to music (via headphones) actually helps focus my attention. In a situation where you may not have an office or even a closed cube, the headphones allow coworkers to see your not open to random conversation. (I have notice it tends to work even if your not listening to anything)

    The other points are good tips as well. I find that leaving ones blackberry or iphone at their desk during meetings also tends to help keep focus.

  4. @Kristy – That’s a great tip! If you find that you work well in a scheduled, structured environment, there is no reason you can set that structure yourself. Set yourself some personal time after long windows of focus, so you have something to work towards. Nice!

    @B. – Glad my Sister-in-law is directing people to my blog, thanks for stopping by!

    @Kevin – I think a lot of people work well with music happening in the background. I know it doesn’t slow me down – as long as I’m devoting too much attention to it. The trick is to keep your focus on one thing at a time, and if you can listen to music and still do that, all the better. :)
    That’s a good tip about the headphones indicating that you are working. Reminds me of a post on Lifehacker on the subject – you don’t even need to have music going, but having the headphones in thins out the interruptions. :)

  5. Just to add on to the music convo…
    I got really good at this in grad school. If music can be distracting to you (I tend to sing along if I know the words for example) try music without words, or at least those in English. I found that bhangra is great. It’s high energy, but I can’t understand a word so it doesn’t distract me. Also, white noise is great. After about 30 seconds you don’t hear it and it completely drowns out all other sounds. There are different tonalities to it so it’s pretty easy to find a version of white noise that works best for you.

  6. When I worked in an office with distracting co-workers I used to put my Ipod headset on and not play anything! Others thought I was busy and they were right! Now I listen to Maximum Focus and other CD’s from ABT, Advanced Brain Technology, an Ogden company. Their CD’s really do what they say! De-Stress, Motivation and more.

  7. I recently followed a very simple suggestion: reduce the frequency of checking emails. I had my email software set to download new emails every 7 minutes, and so every 7 minutes my computer would alert me that there was new email, which took me “off task.”

    Since I’m not currently managing any client campaigns, I don’t need such frequent interruptions — so I changed the setting to check every 35 minutes. That reduces the number of interruptions from 68 per eight-hour workday to only 14. If I don’t experience any unexpected problems, I’ll probably switch to check email every 60 or 90 minutes.

    Of course, I can manually trigger an email check, if I’m expecting something specific.

    I’ve definitely been having some issues regarding multi-tasking — I’m not tolerating interruptions as well as I once did, perhaps due to aging or maybe just from stress. The result has been that when I am interrupted, I sometimes forget what I was doing before the interruption, and at times I’ve even found myself repeating the same work twice!

  8. Here via Jen G.

    This is really a great perspective, I appreciate her sharing and your posting it.
    Gives me a lot of food for thought. I’ll try to focus on just one entree at a time, though.


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