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< Productivity Glossary

What is multitasking?

Multitasking is the act of trying to perform more than one task at the same time. This could involve switching back and forth between them rapidly, or attempting to do both tasks simultaneously. While it’s often mistaken as a way to get more done faster, research suggest that multitasking and rapid task switching are usually ineffective. Our brains are better suited to focus on a single task at a time, and frequent shifting between two or more tasks can actually be counterproductive.

What is the cost of multitasking?

When we multitask, our brains don't truly work on two tasks simultaneously. Instead, they rapidly switch attention between them, causing context switching. This process takes time and mental energy, leading to:

  • Reduced focus: Each task switch costs you your focus requiring you to reactivate the relevant mental processes. This can lead to errors and decreased accuracy.
  • Slower completion times: Switching tasks in rapid succession adds mental overhead, often taking longer than completing tasks sequentially.
  • Increased stress & frustration: The constant context switching can be mentally taxing and lead to feelings of overwhelm, especially in the case of complex tasks.
  • Diminished quality of work: Divided attention often results in lower quality work on both tasks.

However, there are some situations where multitasking can be effective. This involves tasks that require minimal attention, such as listening to music while doing laundry or walking the dog. In these cases, something like music doesn't significantly interfere with the primary task and can even enhance it.

How to reduce multitasking 

Here are some actionable strategies to implement single-tasking instead of multitasking:

1. Start small

Don't try to change everything overnight. Begin by focusing on single-tasking for short periods, like 25 minutes using the Pomodoro Technique. Gradually increase the duration as you get more comfortable.

2. Prioritize ruthlessly

Choose only the most important task for each focused session, and ruthlessly prioritize which is the most valuable use of your time. Don't get overwhelmed by a long to-do list; prioritize and tackle one item at a time instead of multitasking through them all at once.

 3. Limit distractions

Turn off the notifications on your device, put your phone on silent mode, and close any unnecessary browser tabs to avoid distractions. Consider noise-canceling headphones or working in a quiet space to minimize external distractions.

4. Batch similar tasks

Group similar tasks together to reduce context switching. For example, answer all emails at once during a dedicated catch up session you set aside on your calendar, instead of checking them constantly. This helps your brain stay in the same "mode" and reduces the pull to multitask through emails during your important focus time sessions.

5. Reward yourself

Completing a single-tasking session is a small victory. Reward yourself with a short break, a healthy snack, or something you enjoy to reinforce the positive behavior and maintain optimal task performance.

6. Use tracking tools

Consider using timers or apps to track your single-tasking sessions and hold yourself accountable. Seeing your progress can act as a driving force and keep you focused on achieving your goals. 

Examples of multitasking

Here are some examples of multitasking in both personal and professional contexts:

Professional multitasking examples

  • Participating in a video conference, while responding to emails.
  • Preparing presentation slides, while brainstorming ideas for a project.
  • Updating a spreadsheet, while on a phone call with a client.

Personal multitasking examples

  • Cooking dinner, while trying to help your kids with their homework.
  • Folding laundry, while trying to work on your resume.
  • Exercising on a stationary bike, while trying to write in your daily journal.

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