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Multi-tasking, Is It Productivity Enhancing?

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Multi-tasking, Is It Productivity Enhancing?

Just about everyone I know is convinced that they successfully multitask and that other folks can’t.

On a conference call, they have an array of tabs open, answer their phone, watch videos, deal with email and even get in a bit of social media and contribute meaningfully. I call ‘BS’ on this. If this is you and you think you are acting optimally you are dead wrong.

Multi-tasking is not the great productivity enhancer it sounds like. It is the opposite.

How often do you end a working day feeling like you accomplished nothing? That you did not do anything that you enjoy doing at least part of the day? If this is you, then you are a chronic multi-tasker, and these feelings are your norm. Up to 40% or more of our measurable productivity is lost if we indulge in multi-tasking.

Reality: “We task switch, not multi-task and the more tasks we have on the go that we switch between the more our actual productivity decreases.”

But what about the stereotype of mothers who can hold a baby, stir a pot, and talk on the phone all at the same damn time. Aren’t they multitasking? Sorry they aren’t, they are task switching; granted with a degree of speed and aplomb few males can match.

People can’t do more than one thing at a time. What we can do is switch. The more rote the task; the quicker and easier we switch, like when we drive a car. It may feel like we are multi-tasking, but we are task switching at a speed and efficiency made possible by huge amounts of repetition leavened with more than a jot of self-preservation (which always improves our efficiency).

Task switching is costly in terms of time and headspace. Errors increase when we move from task to task; the more complex the task(s), the more errors accumulate. As our brains ‘re-acclimate’ to a task the time to complete it grows, even if each ‘switch’ is less than half a second. Over a working day, this time loss adds up eating into our productivity.

Task switching means we entrain ourselves to produce and accept mediocre outcomes for our work, with a growing ‘expertise’ in wasting more time by looking for, identifying and then fixing the mistakes we make.

If you work for someone else in a management position, this is less than ideal and skates the very edge of perhaps being acceptable. Perhaps. But if it is your business, your entrepreneurial vision, your passion being made real then this is disastrous!

The fix: Mono-tasking.

It is simple but depending on how ‘expert’ you have become at task switching; hard to execute.

Start like this: Plan your day the night before listing the next day’s activities. Then decide which one task you will do first (it can be a simple task or a ‘frog’; up to you but start by doing one thing only). Then tomorrow mute the phone, turn off any notifications on your computer, get out of social media, have a bottle of water on your desk and start this task. Take it as far as you can. Then start another. By its’ own good self. And so on. Complete or progress each task as far as you can before starting the next.

Just 20 or so minutes solely focussed on one task will progress it further and faster than an hour juggling several tasks.

At the end of each day, everyone wants to feel a sense of accomplishment and of having done something we enjoyed. Task switching prevents this. Mono-tasking helps us achieve both along with greater productivity.

In my career, every top executive, every successful business owner underpinned their daily efforts by mono-tasking. The exception is when there is a genuine emergency in their business or an external change in circumstances that forces multi-tasking. When this happens they get through what they need to and then knowing that errors have to have been made, they review and fix them.

Commit to mono-tasking, consign multi-tasking to the bin and bring your focus to bear on one task at a time. Mono-task the heck out of your day while those multi-taskers continue to flounder and thrash about.

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  • Drew
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    Really like to simplicity of the ‘commit to mono-tasking’ approach. I think low-level multitasking was the entry drug but now given the complexities of what many professional works with, a new framework about how we should practice is the next needed evolution.

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