Is your multitasking really productive?

While many people consider it essential or more productive to multitask, the reality is it seriously cuts into productivity. Research has repeatedly shown that multitasking can slow productivity by as much as 25-40% especially as tasks become more complex. As well as affecting productivity, multitasking can also have other wide-reaching effects:

Multitasking drains our energy

Our brains aren’t made to focus on more than one thing at a time, what we actually do when we multitask is shift from one thing to another. Each time we shift our attention, it takes a little time and it uses up a little more mental energy.  If we’re doing this every few minutes, it starts to add up.

For the average worker who spends most of their day on a computer, there’s a distraction every 10.5 minutes, adding up to around 46 distractions a day, equating not only to just over 2 hours of lost productivity but each time the focus is shifted from one task to another, a little more mental energy is also lost.

Multitasking changes our brain

There’s also evidence that multitasking could be changing the structure and function of our brain.

Multitasking creates an addictive dopamine feedback loop, rewarding the brain for losing focus and encouraging a constant search for more external stimulation. Whenever we multitask, we’re training our brains to lose focus, get distracted and strengthening the addiction.

Each time we get distracted, we’re also increasing stress hormone production, causing mental fatigue and anxiety.  It becomes an exhausting cycle.

Heavy multitaskers have been found to be less mentally organised, struggling to switch from one thing to another and having difficulty sorting out relevant and irrelevant details. Media multitaskers (those who spend long periods on several electronic devices at once, like texting while watching TV) display lower grey-matter brain density, resulting in less empathy, emotional control, cognitive control and poor attention span.

Consider focusing on one task at a time, avoiding distractions by closing your emails and putting your phone in a drawer, then take a break. You’ll get more done more quickly and have more energy for other tasks.

Consider these two systems of working to experiment single-tasking:

  • The Pomodoro method. 25 minutes of focus with a five minute break and a 20 to 30 minute break every three or four cycles
  • Ultradian cycles. Our energy levels naturally rise and lower over periods of between 90 and 120 minutes through the day. Focus on a task for one 90 to 120 minute cycle then take a break.