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The cost of multitasking: How to achieve more by focusing on less

“When we multitask we think we're being productive. We are, indeed, being busy. But in reality, we're simply giving ourselves extra work.” - Michael Harris

More than 90% of individuals admit that they ‘multitask’ during their workday. 57% multitask when on phone calls, 23% on webinars and 16% during meetings.

You can probably relate. Have you ever been on a call and simultaneously replying to an email? Have you ever been in a webinar and at the same time checking your phone’s notifications?

We spend a lot of our workday ‘multitasking’. Especially when we are busy, when our to-do lists seem endless.

But in fact, we cannot ‘multitask’ at all.

Multitasking is a myth

Research has shown that the human brain is not able to effectively carry out two or more cognitively demanding tasks simultaneously. What it does, is switch between these tasks really fast. So we are not multitasking, we are task switching. And it is costing us.

According to research, task switching makes us:

  • Up to 40% less productive

  • Double the rate at which we make mistakes

  • Slow down by 50%

When you are on the phone whilst replying to an email, are you completely listening? Are you making mistakes in the email? Found yourself typing what you are saying? We think we are doing more. We are actually making mistakes and it is taking us longer.

Even from a neuroscientific perspective, task switching is exhausting since it is depleting our brains energy reserves we would have used for completing the task.

Why are we task switching now, more than ever?

Due to technology, we live in a state of constant distraction that creates an overwhelming temptation to do more than one thing at a time. We don’t even need to actively use a device to be distracted.

When a notification pops up or our phone vibrates, that is more than enough to divert our attention.

On average we receive around 46 notifications per day on top of 121 work-related notifications from email and chat platforms.

So it is more important now than ever to understand the value of focusing on one task at a time. Here are three tips to encourage focus and boost productivity:

1. Remove distractions and turn notifications off

The best way to avoid interruptions is to turn them off. Especially since remote work became the norm, we can feel pressure to be contactable by email or slack at all times.

Having notifications pop up on our screen is a major distraction and it might take us up to 23 minutes and 15 seconds to focus back on the task we were carrying out.

When we want to focus on a specific task and avoid distractions, we can let our team know. Challenge your mindset, does responding quickly show you are dedicated or does the quality of your work demonstrate it better?

2. Store phones out of sight

The same applies to mobile devices. Although we might think that having a one minute scroll of our social media, or checking for messages is harmless, on average it accumulates to a total of 74 minutes wasted on our phone per working day.

And even having our phone on our desk affects our focus. Simply having our phone placed facing downwards in our line of sight reduces our available cognitive capacity and that can cause our IQ to drop by up to 10 points.

That is why when we are not actively using them, it is important to put our phones in silent mode, turn off notifications and store them out of sight, ideally in a different room.

3. Block out time in your calendar

Blocking out time, adding all of our day-to-day activities to an online calendar and sharing it with our co-workers can help us focus.

Firstly, once we take the list of things we need to do and schedule everything in our diary, that helps us prioritise and dedicate time to each task according to urgency and importance. This frees up space in our brain and allows us to focus on one task at a time.

It also helps minimise our team distracting us. Since they now have access to our calendar, they can see when we are available and when we have blocked out time to focus on something.

Multitasking is a myth. When we think that we are multitasking, we are actually task switching. We think that we are working faster, but tasks end up taking longer. It seems that we are working effectively, but we end up making more mistakes.

Please get in touch with the Higson team if you would like to learn more about how to boost productivity.

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