Self Improvement 25: Stop Multitasking

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stop multitasking

Multitasking does not work!

We are constantly distracted by interruptions. Research (Gloria Mark) shows that in an office environment we have only 11 minutes on any given task before we are interrupted. And what’s even more disheartening, it takes 25 minutes to return to the task. And even that 11 minutes is fragmented between different sub-tasks of email, web, office applications, approximately 3 minutes a piece.

According to the numbers above , it will take 3 hours and 16 minutes to get an hour of work done on a given project. You can’t switch tasks in between to get the hour. So, your 8-hour workday at the office boils down to 2 hours and 27 minutes of actual productive time, and it’s fragmented into pieces so small that no real focusing can occur.

Here’s a short video that illustrates multitasking and adds commentary at the end:

Here’s what happens when you attempt to multi-task. Learn more in John Medina’s book, “Brain Rules.”

And multitasker themselves think they are just fine. More than 70% of the participants in a study Who Multi-Tasks and Why? estimated that they are better multitaskers than average. The actual multitasking performance of participants was not related to their opinion about their ability. One interesting finding was that people most capable of multitasking effectively were least likely to do it.

Multi-tasking activity as measured by the Media Multitasking Inventory and self-reported cell phone usage while driving were negatively correlated with actual multi-tasking ability. Multi-tasking was positively correlated with participants’ perceived ability to multi-task ability which was found to be significantly inflated.

I have seen people who really think they are great multitaskers.

In most cases, it’s just not true. I really hope the point of the research cited above sunk in. Do not multitask!

Here are some tactics that help you stop multitasking:


Plan specific tasks and in time slots. I use 1-2-3 method where I have one really important thing per day, two other larger tasks, and 3 smaller tasks. Each of these gets an equal share of time. One important task gets two 40-minute slots, two other larger tasks get 40-minutes each, and the three smaller tasks share two 40-minute slots.

All these 40-minute periods are separated by 20-minute breaks. A break means that you can do whatever you want. Make coffee, go for a walk, interrupt co-workers, anything goes. Of course, you can use that time for email, phone calls, and other urgent but small tasks that you can’t plan for. However, make sure that you spend at least some of the break for relaxing.

There is one exception to the breaks. If you hit flow stat with your big task of the day, you can skip the break and spend the entire 100 minutes on the task, but after that time you might want to take a break even if you are not interrupted.

To make this happen, you need to manage your work environment so that you will not be interrupted.

quote multitasking


Most of the time multitasking is an illusion. You think you are multitasking, but in reality, you’re actually wasting time switching from one task to another. ~~Bosco Tjan

Closed doors

If you have a door, then put a sign on it when you are “in session.” If you don’t have the luxury of a personal door then tell your co-workers that when you are wearing headphones, you should not be interrupted.

Quiet mornings

At our company, we are trying to create an environment where people can’t talk to each other in open areas before noon. If talking is necessary, then you have to go to a room that is isolated from the co-workers you might be interrupting.

No meetings before noon

In the similar push for solid blocks of interruption-free time, we try to hold meetings only in the second half of the day. No meetings in the morning will give you enough time to get the important tasks of the day done. There may be cases when the meeting is the important task, but that’s not the case usually.

If you can, arrange your schedule so that you will work for the first half of the day from home. Not only will you get an amazing amount of stuff done but you will also beat the morning rush hour. Combine that with becoming an early raiser, and you will have something akin to superpower when it comes to your career.

Turn off notifications

To make sure that you will not be distracted put your phone in silent mode. Turn off all notifications from email, IMs, and social networks. Close everything that’s not related to the task at hand and focus.

Multitasking is a myth, says McGill University Psychology Professor Daniel Levitin. Switching focus across tasks comes at a neurological cost, depleting chemicals we need to concentrate. Levitin’s book is “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.”

Now, remember, multitasking does not work! Find ways you can avoid multitasking.


Image: Caffeinating, calculating, computerating by Ryan Ritchie
Image: Handyman by John Nyberg

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3 Responses

  1. May 17, 2013

    […] Improve Your Life #25: Start Singletasking […]

  2. May 31, 2013

    […] Improve Your Life #25: Start Singletasking […]

  3. July 8, 2013

    […] in the moment, single-task and carve out solid junks of time for important things you need to […]

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