For quite a long time, multitasking was all the rage. Imagine getting twice as much done at the same time just by doing more than one thing at a time! Unfortunately, it's been determined that not only is multitasking not very effective; it can actually hamper your ability to think and to retain information.
Consider a 2003 Cornell University study, in which 44 students were given laptops over the course of a semester and asked to use them during lectures to assist with learning. After two months of lectures, the researchers conducted an experiment to determine how the laptop usage was affecting the students’ learning.
Students were split into two groups; half were randomly selected to be taken out of the classroom to do another task, while the other half stayed in the classroom, listened to a lecture, and were encouraged to use their laptops to assist with learning. Afterwards, they were administered a 20-question test about the lecture. The experiment was run vice-versa a while later: the two groups switched places, but the lecture group wasn’t allowed to use laptops, and was administered the same 20-question test.
The researchers’ results are illuminating: students who used laptops (and thus had more opportunities for distraction) had far worse total recall and recognition of the subjects covered in the lecture.
Imagine how these results could play out in the business world: important meetings in which you try to multitask will become blurs in your memory, in which no significant information is retained.
I’ve found myself reasoning, “as a parent, I got pretty good at doing more than one thing at a time!”. However, in the business world most of our attempts to multitask lead to
- errors caused by distraction, and
- time lost moving our focus from the first task to the second one.
Multitasking flies in the face of how your brain works by forcing you to split your focus. Not only doesn't it work well, but it limits how much you can take in of any of the projects you're working on.
For example, if you're editing copy and trying to listen to a podcast at the same time, your editing will be haphazard because your focus is limited.
Also, the information from the book won't transfer well from your short-term memory to long-term memory because it's getting disrupted on the way by the copy you're studying. Turn off the recording, focus on and finish the copy, then turn on the podcast.
How’s this for a jarring fact: multitasking can hamper your cognitive ability as severely as though you'd worked all night! Multitasking steals your IQ points away, too. For example, let's say part of your job is to merge a client’s existing data into a new piece of software. If your focus is being pulled away by a conference call or a conversation, you may make a debilitating error in the software setup.
Focusing is more productive than multitasking. Your day might include a lot of work on one project, or it may include several projects. However, if you stay focused as you move from project to project, finishing one before starting another, you will finish more projects with more accuracy than you can by trying to do several projects at the same time.
Multitasking can work if one of the tasks is rote or repetitive. However, be aware that if your focus gets pulled by the more challenging project, the project you learned by rote will also need some separate focus while you get back in the groove.
There are plenty of distractions that can make focused work feel like multiple tasks. However, there are plenty of great suggestions to help you maintain focus in a noisy, disruptive world. Below are some of the best:
1) Use a timer. Set the timer on your phone for forty-five minutes, lay it face-down and work like crazy until the beeper goes off. Then take a fifteen-minute break to clear your head, get some water, and take a little walk before you start another forty-five-minute session. Eventually you'll learn to listen for nothing but the beeper and be able to block out other noise. When it comes time for your break, treat yourself.
2) If silence makes it hard to work, try one of the cafe apps for your phone. With headphones, you can work while enjoying a low rumble of indistinguishable communication all around you.
3) Turn off alerts for emails and work in thirty minute chunks of uninterrupted time. It may be hard for you to disconnect for forty-five minutes to an hour, depending on your job, but half an hour should be possible. If you wear glasses but can see your work without them, take them off. This will help you stay focused on the screens you need without other visual distractions.
4) Use tools that focus you on one task at a time, like a project management software or a business intelligence platform. Trust me, as a business professional I’ve seen time and again how a small investment in a business tool has helped me focus my attention on pressing issues, rather than scrambling between an endless amount of tasks. it’ll be worth it to help you avoid distractions and increase your productivity, one project at a time.
Break away from the habit of multitasking. It will help you build stronger memory connections from short term to long term and increase your accuracy as you practice intense, focused work.
This article is a guest post by Lewis Robinson, a consultant and freelance writer specializing in streamlining business processes with business technology. He is the former founder and CEO of a small software company. You can reach him on his LinkedIn profile