Let’s think about the concept of productivity. A straightforward definition could be that it is the effectiveness of our efforts as measured by the rate of output of successful results. Put simply: it means we’re getting stuff done and doing it well. Generally speaking, this is something we can all get behind as a solid strategy for tackling all of our daily tasks.
Now factor in the concept that if getting things done is good, why not get lots of things done at the same time? This is where we can easily run into trouble; and that trouble goes by the name
‘multitasking.’ Another definition for you: Multitasking often means doing multiple things poorly at once.
Multitasking is a highly relatable topic because most of us engage in the practice multiple times a day. Why we multitask is simple; time is short, our to-do list is long and it gives us the psychological satisfaction of feeling like we are taking care of business on multiple fronts while making the most of our limited hours in the day.
Here’s the reality, though. Only about 2 percent of the human population is actually able to successfully multitask, and the overwhelming majority of us see a decrease in performance and productivity when we are doing multiple things at once. That said, the fact that multitasking remains such a persistent habit is because each of us tends to believe we are in that 2 percent of people who can do a lot of stuff well simultaneously!
This is not new information. The studies of human attention and task execution has been going on for many years, and David Strayer, a cognitive neuroscientist and psychology professor at the University of Utah, is an expert in the field. Strayer has been involved in multiple studies in the past decades that have enlisted thousands of participants to measure the results of multitasking. The data continues to be conclusive that attempting to do multiple things at once shows deteriorating performance and results across the board. One of those studies highlights the disastrous effects of multitasking while driving, which primarily involves some sort of cell phone use, whether it be talking or typing. Reaction times and situational awareness plummeted and the results of sober but distracted drivers closely resembled those of intoxicated drivers.
If we can come to grips with the fact that 98 percent of us actually decrease our productivity when multitasking, it’s a clear argument that we should direct our attention to the benefits of monotasking. Put simply, we should focus on completing one task at a time. Monotasking allows us to create efficiency in how we manage our priorities as it eliminates task switching.
A quick note on task switching. The brain is not designed to do multiple complex tasks simultaneously, so when we think we are doing multiple things at the same time–like responding to an email, writing a report for work and talking to our kids about a problem at school–we are going through a subconscious process of mental transition each time (Stop/Switch/Start/Focus), and each time we pull ourselves out of that ‘flow’ zone where we are starting to really zero in on the one task for maximum performance results.
If you are interested in taking a new approach to how you manage your daily tasks and want to shift your approach to monotasking, below are some starting strategies to help you build your habits around task focus and sequential activities.
1. Prioritize and plan: Have a daily list of what needs to be done and in what order. Each of those tasks should have a clear outcome of what a successful ‘mission complete’ looks like. Often we
procrastinate on higher value to-do list items and concentrate on easier tasks which make us feel busy but end up giving us less value.
2. Establish time blocks: Part of the appeal of multitasking is that it provides some variety for our limited attention spans. Recognizing that natural tendency, plan around the fact that we have
mental limits of concentration. For example, I have an (analog!) hour glass on my desk that I flip over and know that for the next 60 minutes I’m focused on the task at hand without distractions. Speaking of which…
3. Eliminate distractions: This part is mission critical as it’s the small distractions that often end up causing us the largest detours from our planned tasks. Unless you’re expecting an urgent call or email, leave your phone in a different room or, at minimum, on silent and face down so you’re not continuously drawn to check text messages, notifications or emails during that task focused block of time.
4. Stick with it: Recognize this is likely a very different mindset and approach to what you have been doing and that new habits take a few months to take hold. Take notes and review weekly
to assess your new approach and evaluate what’s working well and what needs to be modified for improved results.
It’s worth mentioning that this approach isn’t related to only tasks on your to-do list. Often, we are mentally multitasking when we are having conversations with family or friends or distracted by non-priority thoughts when we would be better served to enjoy the moment we are currently in. When we build our mindfulness skills of being present in the present, we are able to enjoy the habit of being singularly focused on the most important thing at that particular time. Will that make you more productive? Absolutely. More importantly, it’s going to elevate your everyday experiences in every category.
Eric Bartosz is the founder of BAR40 and the author of the internationally acclaimed and bestselling book ‘BAR40: Achieving Personal Excellence.’ He lives in Center Valley with his wife Trish, daughter Riley and pug Piper, is an adjunct MBA professor at DeSales University and serves the community as an Upper Saucon firefighter, a board member of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Lehigh Valley and a local race organizer. Eric is a 20+ year runner and racer and can often be found logging miles on the Saucon Rail Trail.