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Is Multitasking Productive or Not?

Either you run the day, or the day runs you--Jim Rohn

Phones are ringing like crazy, your desk looks like a fire hazard and your computer screen just let you know you’ve got new mail. Out of nowhere comes your boss to ask you about that task he’d wanted by lunchtime. Suddenly you’re gripped by fear as you recall the question from that sweet-talking human-resources person in the interview for this job: “How are your multitasking skills, are you more productive when you multitask?”

It is obvious that there is less staff doing more work in many companies. There are smaller staffs putting in longer hours and knocking out more and more tasks. Most workers are expected to juggle several projects at the same time, with new and often unexpected additional tasks arriving on their desks by the hour. They call it multitasking. But is the human brain really capable of focusing on several projects at the same time? Or would we be more productive if we focused on each task individually?In other words “Is multitasking productive?”

Multitasking ‘per se’ is a myth.

We are all being constantly bombarded with things that are vying for our attention. Interruptions are a fact of life, and distractions will keep coming, so naturally it becomes harder to focus on one thing at a time. However research shows that our brains aren’t really able to truly focus on two things at the same time. Instead, they shift their focus so fast that it feels like we’re working on two things at once. But we aren’t. You can be talking to someone on the phone, and then you glance down at your computer screen to check your emails while you’re talking and then looking at the screen, what is actually happening is that the brain is switching back and forth at rapid speed. This is known as cognitive flexibility.

It might therefore be more efficient to put on your time-management hat than to multitask. Focus on one task at a time, but use a clever little device called a timer. Set it for 20 minutes and ask yourself, ‘What’s the right thing for me to do right now. Not what I should be doing, but what’s right?’ Whether that thing is planning a presentation or sending several emails, make a conscious choice about how you’re going to spend those minutes, then set the timer. When it rings, ask yourself, “Did I get my task done, or did I get distracted?” Over time, this technique will teach you how to focus on the task at hand, and you’ll not only get more done in the same amount of time, but the end product will be of higher quality.

It is quite obvious that working to aggressive deadlines, multiple priorities and unreasonable expectations every day with fewer employees around to get the work done, leads to many of us being expected to perform at levels that may be impossible to sustain in the long run.

What can we do?

So what can be done especially in an economy where unemployment is high and keeping a job is critical. Firstly, you can prioritize your projects, but make sure you don’t neglect the ones you’d rather not do, since those are quite likely the very projects that might be important to key stakeholders. Each project has a beginning, middle and end. You need to figure out how to begin new tasks whilst managing and completing others.

To help manage this you need to track the status of each project. That way you can see what needs to happen right now and what you can hold off on. In other words you will identify the critical path. The aim is to move each project along until you reach a point where you can set it aside for a bit whilst you start a new project.

Some experts take a more tough-love approach; they say that multitasking is alive and well and very doable, and that it’s really more a matter of how you direct your energy. It is likely that there are some people who say they can only focus on one task at a time. But others would call that nothing more than an excuse.

“Would you tell David Cameron he can only focus on one task at a time? Surely nothing would ever get done. The secret to so called multitasking is to determine how much mental energy you need to direct toward each task.

We only have limited mental energy. It is of course finite. We have to learn how best to squeeze all the juice out of our day and still get those important tasks completed. Let’s say we all have a hundred units of mental energy to direct toward tasks at any given time. Tying our shoes might only require one unit, while driving our car may require thirty units. Playing a game of competitive chess or trying to solve a difficult problem may require all one hundred units. The more important the task, the more units of mental energy should be directed toward it. There’s something to keep in mind the next time you’re faced with multiple priorities and unreasonable expectations.

Frances Masters

Frances Masters is a BACP accredited psychotherapist with over 30,000 client hours of experience. Follow her @fusioncoachuk, or visit The Integrated Coaching Academy for details about up coming training.