Imagine two women named Fran and Debra who each decide to go for a three-mile run near their office. They each plan to run alone. They are each capable of completing this distance in thirty minutes.
Fran gets changed at her office, warms up for five minutes, and starts her run at 2:00 p.m. She is in the zone the entire time and finishes slightly faster than usual at 2:29 p.m.
Debra gets changed, warms up, and starts her run at 2:00 p.m. However, her run does not go as smoothly. Four minutes after she starts, she stops to respond to a text from a friend. Six minutes later, she stops to speak with a co-worker who is also out for a run. Seven minutes later, she stops to take an unexpected call from another co-worker. As a result, her run takes over an hour to finish.
Fran’s run is your workday when you focus intensely on one task at a time. Debra’s run is your workday when you try to multitask and allow yourself to be distracted by incoming messages, unexpected visits, and unscheduled phone calls.
Multitasking is the worst and most common work habit.
Why Is Multitasking So Bad For Your Productivity?
Despite what many people believe, multitasking decreases (not increases) your productivity. Research has proven this over and over. For example, one study analyzed what happened when a group of Microsoft employees was interrupted by emails or instant messages. On average, the workers took fifteen minutes to get back to an important task each time they were disturbed. 1
Other research has demonstrated that multitasking could change your brain and make it even harder for you to be able to focus in the future. In other words, chronic multitasking could train your brain to be distracted. A study by the University of Sussex compared the brains of people who typically multitask with the brains of people who focus on one task at a time. While the study demonstrated a link and not causality, they found that multitaskers had lower gray-matter density in a part of the brain responsible for various cognitive and emotional control functions. 2
Multitasking reduces your performance on virtually every task, including your ability to multitask! Dr. Clifford Nass (a deceased Stanford university sociologist) studied this topic before he passed away. As he said during an interview in 2013, “People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand. They’re even terrible at multitasking. When we ask them to multitask, they’re actually worse at it.” 3
If Multitasking is So Bad, Why Do We Do It?
Today’s environment encourages us to multitask. Laptops, smartphones, and other forms of technology improve our lives in many ways. However, they also discourage us from concentrating on one task at a time. For example, a 2013 study commissioned by Nokia found that the average person checks their cell phone 150 times a day. 4 That is once every six to seven minutes, on average, during waking hours.
The #1 Way to Stop Multitasking
Keep your email and social media accounts closed, and keep your phone off, on airplane mode, or not accessible during periods when you want to concentrate. Few incoming calls and messages need a response within seconds. You can still check your inboxes and devices every thirty or sixty minutes if you feel compelled to do so. What you do not want to do is leave them open, buzzing, notifying, and interrupting you all day.
More than once while finishing the manuscript for my latest book, my brother left me a voicemail complaining that my phone was off. He said this made it impossible to reach me live. Each time I called him back, I reminded him that was the point.
You can try to multitask, or you can focus. You cannot do both.
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About the author: Pete Leibman is the Creator of StrongerHabits.com. He is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, executive recruiter, athlete, and peak performance coach. His work has been featured on Fox News, CBS Radio, and CNNMoney.com, and over 500,000 people across the world have read his articles.
References for this article:
- Steve Lohr, “Slow Down, Brave Multitasker, and Don’t Read This in Traffic,” New York Times, March 25, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/25/business/25multi.html?mcubz=3.
- Jacqui Bealing, “Brain scans reveal ‘grey matter’ differences in media multitaskers,” University of Sussex, September 25, 2014, http://www.sussex.ac.uk/broadcast/read/26540.
- “The Myth Of Multitasking,” NPR, May 10, 2013, http://www.npr.org/2013/05/10/182861382/the-myth-of-multitasking.
- Stephen Willard, “Study: People Check Their Cell Phones Every Six Minutes, 150 Times A Day,” Elite Daily, accessed on August 5, 2017, http://elitedaily.com/news/world/study-people-check-cell-phones-minutes-150-times-day/.