Is Multitasking Killing Your Productivity? Try Monotasking Instead
Between crushing your work goals, making time for friends and family, keeping up with your hobbies and even getting to the gym — chances are you’re multitasking. Sure, you're tackling your to-do list, but it might be doing more harm than good.
“Multitasking is actually a myth,” says Devora Zack, author of “Singletasking: Get More Done — One Thing at a Time.” “The brain is hardwired to only do one thing at a time.”
So when you think you’re multitasking, you’re actually practicing something called task switching, which means your brain is bouncing back and forth between activities. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance found task switching eats up time and increases the likelihood that mistakes will be made.
What’s more, multitasking leads to stress, says Dave Crenshaw, author of “The Myth of Multitasking: How ‘Doing It All’ Gets Nothing Done.” And nobody needs more of that.
Luckily, there’s an alternative: the reverse of multitasking, called monotasking or single tasking. Here are five situations in which to try it out.
When Facing a Deadline
When you’re busting through a to-do list, trying to do multiple things at once — such as answering emails while working on the project that's due in an hour — might make you less efficient and more error-prone, Zack says. That’s because as we’re jumping from one thing to the next, we can’t reach the state of immersion that fosters creative problem-solving.
The Monotasking Fix: Set up a distraction-free work zone and turn off pop-ups and pings before they have a chance to interfere, Zack says. That goes for work screens of all kinds and any personal devices you have stashed at your desk.
Also consider blocking out your calendar to work on specific projects, Crenshaw suggests, so you’re motivated to stick to a schedule. And set an alert to check email for 15 minutes at a time every few hours. He also suggests letting clients and coworkers know that you’ll respond to email at certain times of day (such as by noting it in your email signature), so they have an idea of when to expect a reply.
You may think of multitasking as a work thing, but chances are you also do it in your personal life, where it can be equally detrimental. Multitasking at work hurts your efficiency; multitasking on a human being can damage a relationship, Crenshaw says.
“There’s a temptation that you have to be available to all people at all times, and when you have that attitude, you’re never fully available to any one person ever,” Zack adds.
You may do it without realizing or intending to. Consider this scenario: You’re out for drinks with a group of friends but texting another friend under the table. It seems harmless, but you’re sending the signal that the friends you’re with are not that important to you.
The Monotasking Fix: Put your phone away when you're socializing or sitting down to dinner. If you must be available — say, in case your kids have an emergency —create a special ringtone that’ll help you know when important calls come in.
When Running a Meeting
We’ve all been in those meetings when things need to be repeated because someone was replying to an email instead of paying attention. Not only does this draw out the meeting and waste everyone’s time, but the multitaskers may also walk away confused about what was discussed, which could lead to future mistakes.
The Monotasking Fix: At the start of a meeting, announce that it’ll be device-free. (Project digital presentations from one screen so that everyone views it together.) Give each person a note pad, pen and agenda.
As a reward for trying the experiment, announce at the onset that the meeting will be cut short, from an hour to 30 minutes, for example. “You will be amazed that you can get as much done — if not more — in half the time,” Zack says.
Running with your high-intensity interval training playlist on blast is OK, says Zack, since that's not really multitasking anyway. “But if you’re exercising and also trying to read a book or talk to a friend, typically that slows people down,” she adds. “If someone is texting on the StairMaster, first of all, they’re not getting an effective workout, and second of all, it’s dangerous.”
The Monotasking Fix: Focus on exercising at the gym, and not what the Real Housewives are up to on TV. You’ll get an effective workout in less time.
When Taking a Break
A study in the Academy of Management Journal found not taking a lunch break at work made study participants more fatigued and less productive during the remainder of the day.
The Monotasking Fix: Schedule a non-negotiable lunch break. And consider eating your meal solo, the study’s researchers suggest. Talking with coworkers about work may not give you the chance to truly unwind.
If eating alone isn't possible, try spending half your lunch break with colleagues and the other half by yourself, or take a quick walk around the block later in the afternoon. “You get the benefit from relaxing, and then you get more done,” Zack says.