Career Advice

How Multitasking Slowly Erodes Productivity

Architects working on project

On the surface, multitasking seems like a winning proposition. After all, if you work on two projects at once, then you’ll finish twice as quickly, right? It’s a perfect situation! How can you lose?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. When you try to focus on two different projects, you divide your attention, and your brain has to expend additional energy each time you switch from one task to the other. Often, it will actually end up taking you longer to get the work done.

Negative Effects of Multitasking

Multitasking is not only an inefficient use of your time; it can actually have a negative impact, both on your work and your personal well-being. Let’s take a look at a few of the problems it can bring about:

1. Diluted Focus

If you’re splitting your attention between two, or three, or even more tasks at once, that means that you’re not able to focus on any one of them. The brain is an incredible tool, but it can only go so far before it starts to experience diminishing returns. Guy Winch, a PhD and author of the book Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries posits that we’re not really “multitasking” at all. Instead, we’re “task-switching.”

“When it comes to attention and productivity, our brains have a finite amount,” says Winch. “It’s like a pie chart, and whatever we’re working on is going to take up the majority of that pie. There’s not a lot left over for other things, with the exception of automatic behaviors like walking or chewing gum.” You’re never really able to focus on one task enough to get “in the zone.”

2. Lower Productivity

This may seem counterintuitive, but the more tasks you work on at a time, the less work you will get done. Most people resort to multitasking as a way to get more done, not less. But working distracted can lead to slower performance and more mistakes. In fact, shifting back and forth between two or more tasks create mental blocks where your brain has to shift its focus. These blocks can cost as much as 40 percent of your regular productive time.

3. Health Complications

Multitasking increases stress, which isn’t always bad in the short-term, but can lead to serious complications if it goes on for too long. Chronic stress causes your body to produce more cortisol, which can bring on physical complications, such as heart issues, high blood pressure, and a diminished immune system.

What to Do About It

Even when you recognize the negative effects multitasking can have on your work, it’s still tempting to try to work on several jobs at once.

1. Delegate as Needed

Instead of splitting one mind among several tasks, try the opposite tactic. Spread the load out a bit and assign certain jobs to other team members who may be able to lend a hand.  Put a work structure in place with the goal of keeping any particular employee’s queue from filling up too much.

2. Manage Your (and Your Team’s) Workflow

This is essentially just another way of saying, “Plan ahead.” Keep an eye on what projects you and your team have coming down the pipeline. If you know there will be a huge project that you will need to focus all of your attention on in the next month, do what you can to clear other tasks from that time. Prepare yourself and your team members for any eventuality.

CEO Rob Nelson and his team at Grow used to suffer from the sheer amount of work they tried to tackle each day. “Our leadership team used to come to stand-ups with 5+ priorities for the day,” says Nelson, “but dividing our focus often yielded very little progress. Now, we discuss the one thing we’re focused on for that day, and it’s dramatically changed our effectiveness”.

This also means setting priorities. If everything you send to your team is marked “ASAP,” then they have no way to know which tasks to tackle first. This usually leads to employees bouncing back and forth between each task, trying to get them all done quickly. Eventually, instead of everything getting done immediately, nothing ends up getting done.

3. Take Regular Breaks

Oddly enough, taking breaks can actually lead to more getting done. If you are constantly working, with no end in sight, it’s easy to get burned out. Shorter bursts of work are more productive, so you and your team should take a break anywhere between every 50 minutes and every 90 minutes. This will give you the occasional moment to unwind from the constant focus, leading to better results over the long term.

 

Lewis Robinson is a business consultant specializing in assisting small/medium businesses and start-ups streamline their business processes. You can reach out to him through his LinkedIn profile.

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