According to research and studies that have been conducted, the answer is: probably not. If you are doing tasks that don’t require much brain power, then you can probably do them at the same time. For instance, you can walk and chew gum at the same time. I often wash dishes while talking on the phone. I don’t have to think about how to wash dishes, it’s a rote task I just do.
However, if you try to accomplish two dissimilar tasks at the same time, that is when multitasking falls apart. Have you ever tried to type a response to an email while you are talking on the phone about something else? If you concentrate on the phone conversation, you have to stop typing. If you are on a roll when typing your email message, you have most likely tuned out the other person on the phone. Research has even shown that multitasking decreases productivity by up to 40%.
That’s because you aren’t really multitasking. You may think you are doing lots of things simultaneously, but you are actually switching your attention from one task to another extremely quickly. The term “multitasking” came from the computer engineering industry. The idea was used to explain how a computer processor would perform tasks simultaneously. In reality, each task was being processed one at a time, but the tasks were rotated many times a second. With multi-core processors, each core can actually perform a separate task simultaneously.
Unfortunately, humans have a single core processor. We are switching our attention from task to task. With the increases in technology and the bombardment of messages all day long, we have gotten into the habit of multitasking. Multitasking is not only ineffective, but it can also be stressful and frustrating. So, what can we do about it?
Break the multitasking habit – become a unitasker
You can teach yourself to unitask. In fact, if you are under a deadline, you are probably unitasking without even realizing it. You block everything else out to get the task done on time.
Here are some tips to help you become a great unitasker:
Schedule time to unitask
If you know you have a memo to write, spreadsheet to finish or important deadline looming, schedule time in your day to devote your attention to that one task. I scheduled time right after lunch to write this blog.
Set aside a specific amount of time
I am giving myself an hour to read over the research I gathered for this blog, outline the topic and write the first draft. Then, I’ll walk away from the blog for a few hours or maybe even a day. I’ll come back to it to review and edit it before I post it. By setting aside a certain amount of time, I give myself permission to focus on just writing the blog. And I give myself permission to stop in an hour. If I was stuck or getting diminishing returns before the hour was up, I would stop and come back to it later. The idea is to use my time as productively as possible.
Close the door
You need to block out other distractions. If you have a door, you may need to close it to allow you to concentrate. If you work in a cubicle or open office space, you may need to “close the door” figuratively and tune out the activities around you. Or, you might be able to move to an empty conference room or break area for a short period of time.
Clear your desk
If your desk is messy with other paperwork, job folders or reminder notes, you may be tempted to switch your attention to another task. Especially if you are working on something you don’t really want to do, it is more tempting to pick up something else to work on. You feel less guilty because you think you are still being productive. On a side note, don’t get so caught up in organizing your desk that you procrastinate doing the task you had planned.
Disconnect from technology
Turning everything off – your email, phones, internet, etc. – may be the hardest part of unitasking. If you can’t disconnect from technology completely, at least silence your devices and the notifications. As I tell my teenage kids, the world will go on if you don’t answer that text right this second. Just because you get an email, phone call or text doesn’t mean it has to be handled immediately. It can most likely wait for a few minutes.
Deal with any urgent interruptions
However, there will be times when you have to stop what you are working on and deal with a co-worker’s question or an important phone call. Instead of trying to multitask during the interruption, stop what you’re doing and make a note of where you are in the task. Write down any thoughts you were having about how to move forward. Then, when you come back to the task, you will be able to more quickly pick up where you left off.
When you start multitasking, stop
If you find yourself wanting to check your email or take a call just for the distraction, resist the urge, take a deep breath and get your focus back on the task at hand. You may even catch yourself multitasking without even realizing you are doing it. After all, it is a hard habit to break! Acknowledge that you are doing it and then get yourself back on track.
When you set a unitask goal and you accomplish the task, reward yourself. Take a break for a few minutes to get something to drink, enjoy the view out a window, or stand up and stretch. Bask in the glory of unitasking, and then tackle the next task on your to-do list!
Are you a multitasker? Do you think you could get more done if you unitasked? Let us know what you think!