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Blog  > What I Have Learned  > Want to be more productive? Stop multi-tasking

12 March 2019

Want to be more productive? Stop multi-tasking 

Think you’re good at multi-tasking? Feeling energised that you can attend to your emails while listening and contributing to a conference call?  You're wrong. 

I recall in years gone by how I used to be so proud of the fact that women, in particular, were so good at multi-tasking. Two decades later I realise how detrimental this is, particularly in the workplace. 

Shifting attention between tasks is hugely inefficient as it forces our brain to refocus. Studies show that multi-tasking (aka task-switching) can reduce productivity by as much as 40%.  It's not too dissimilar to computers; open too many tabs simultaneously, and the processing slows, and eventually shuts down.  

A study, conducted by researchers at the University of California-San Diego, according to  The Times and The Daily Telegraph in Britain, found that people are inundated daily with the equivalent amount of 34 gigabytes of information, a sufficient quantity to overload a laptop, within a week.  It's no wonder we are exhausted, have brain fog and feel the pressure of too much to do in too little time.  It's time to slow down to speed up. 

The next time you’re in a meeting, watch everyone on their laptops and checking their phones and how they try to engage. You'll notice a little lag as people disengage from what they’re doing and enter the conversation. And studies back this up: psychology research has shown that people can only attend to one task at a time. More specifically, we can only be thinking about one thing at a time. So, you can be talking, or you can be reading. You can be reading, or you can be typing. You can be listening, or you can be reading.  

Disagree? Well, you're fooling yourself, we are pretty good at switching back and forth quickly, so we think we are multi-tasking, but in reality, we are not. But with everything, there’s an exception: research has uncovered that if you are doing a physical task that you often do and are very good at, then you can do that physical task while doing a mental task. So if you have learned to walk, then you can walk and talk at the same time. But we have taken it too far, and we're paying the price. 

So if multi-tasking isn’t effective, how do you effectively cope with all the input and distractions in life, especially at work?  

Use the 80/20 rule

20% of the work you do gives 80% of the impact and effectiveness. We often make the mistake of thinking that being busy means being effective. And the busier we get, the more multi-tasking we do. Focus on identifying the 20% of your tasks that are really effective and complete them one at a time.  

Batch process distractions

Adopting batch processing means you can eliminate your multi-task-inducing distractors. Sitting with your email open and getting sucked into reading and answering emails means that every time one arrives in your inbox, you are encouraged to multi-task. Instead, switch WiFi off (yes you actually can do that!),  deal with your inbox offline, switch WiFi back on and walk away while it sends. It's merely a choice.  Think of what distracts you in other areas and apply the same principle. 

Work on your most important tasks first

One of the reasons we multi-task is due to anxiety. As the day goes, we feel like we haven’t accomplished what we set out to do, or what is essential. Consider what impacts your business the most and start there.  We focus too much on ticking boxes of never-ending lists without thinking of the impact  And please don't succumb to the "I work best under pressure" myth. We may meet a deadline because there is no longer a choice, but we are unable to make good decisions, be creative or apply our best thoughts when under pressure.  

Use focussed time/get into flow

Have you felt how easy some tasks are, even how easy some days are?  You may find that this is due to your focus AND completion of things. I try to block time to work on a task to the end.  I may even move to another space to do this. Close your email, turn off your phone or place it on silent, close the door to your office or sit where you can’t be found. You will be amazed at how much you will accomplish and how energised you feel. 

Leave blank spaces

It may sound paradoxical, but if you stop thinking about a problem or topic,  you will then be able to solve it! Have you ever noticed how that happens? In the shower? Driving somewhere?  It's the gaps of 'nothing' that bear the most objective thoughts.  So, make time for blank spaces.  Time to be, to think. Not talking, not reading, not writing. Go for a walk, exercise or stare into space. 

Go ‘off grid’ to re-calibrate

Last year I spent many moments, even weeks ‘off the grid’. It was different, exciting, scary and strange. But it did allow me to focus on one task at a time; I was mindful, creative and less anxious. 

Being online and connected continuously is an addiction in today's world and entices task switching.  We all deserve a break.  Are you brave enough to focus more and multi-task less?  Go on; I dare you.

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