You know that multitasking is a bad idea. You may even know that frequent multitasking shrinks your brain and lowers your IQ. But did you know that, far from saving you time, multitasking cuts your productivity by a whopping 40 percent?
That frightening number comes from Devora Zack, CEO of Only Connect Consulting, and author most recently of Singletasking: Get More Done–One Thing at a Time. In fact, she notes, there’s actually no such thing as multitasking. You may think you’re taking part in a conference call, writing a report, and texting with your spouse all at the same time, but what your brain is actually doing is switching non-stop among these different activities. That’s costing you both efficiency and brain cells.
The problem is, like many things, multitasking may be bad for you but it feels really good. That’s because as you switch from task to task, your brain reacts to the feeling of newness with a jolt of dopamine–the same brain chemical that causes heroin addiction.
Fortunately, Zack says, you can get off the multitasking treadmill, and regain your efficiency, not to mention the IQ points you may have lost. Here’s how.
1. Choose one task and commit to it.
“Singletasking obliges you to do one thing at a time, excluding any other demands at that moment,” Zack says. “This means you must stand firm and genuinely commit to your choices.”
This doesn’t mean that you need to stick with a single task until it is completed, she adds–few of us have the scheduling freedom for that. What she does suggest is picking a specific amount of time to work on a given task and sticking to it for that much time.
I believe that approach is the power of the highly popular Pomodoro Technique, in which you work on a given task for 25 minutes at a time (one “pomodoro”) and then take a five-minute break. Whether you use pomodoros or not, focusing on one task at a time is a highly powerful thing to do, especially if you’ve got a tough job to complete.
2. Pick a place to park distracting inspirations.
You know what I mean. You’re in the middle of writing an email to a client and suddenly a bright idea for how to pitch another client pops into your head. If you’re a multitasker, your response us to open a new email and start writing that second pitch while it’s fresh in your mind.
The wiser approach is to designate a handy place to leave notes to yourself so that you don’t lose your brilliant ideas and can come back to them later while keeping your focus on the task at hand. Ideally, you should quickly switch to a different screen (or pull out a nearby notepad), jot down a few words or a sentence that will help you remember your bright idea, and then go right back to what you were doing. Zack uses her smartphone for this purpose; I use Evernote. Whatever method you choose, it should be quick, near to hand, intuitive for you, and as brief an interruption as possible.
3. Give yourself the gift of distraction-free time.
“It’s up to you to control your environment–to ‘build fences’ to keep potential distractions, such as noise and pop-ups, at bay,” Zack says. It’s easy to blame your co-workers (or the people you live with, if you work at home) when they distract you. It’s also easy to blame your technology for distracting you–the incoming email or Facebook notification that bings or buzzes, the incoming phone call or text.
The fact is, being distracted or not is mostly within your control. If you have an office with a door, close that door during conference calls, while working on projects, and other times you need want to focus on a single task (which should be most of the time). If you work in a cubicle or your office has an open floor plan, use a sticky note or some other means to signal that you don’t want to be disturbed right now. And you can block calls, texts, and other such distractions by closing your email window and silencing your phone’s notifications.
4. Perform related tasks in clusters.
Answering email messages, texts, and social media messages as they arrive is a great way to abandon your focus and get that addictive dopamine craving filled. Resist the temptation by relegating certain tasks to certain periods or times of the day. For instance, you might limit reading and answering email to three times: when you start work in the morning, at lunch time, and right before you stop for the day, Zack suggests. That way, email won’t interrupt you the rest of the time.
It’s also smart to cluster tasks by topic because that will help you increase focus. You may be receiving email about many different projects or sales opportunities. If you respond to them project by project, instead of in the order they arrive, you’ll be able to focus better on each overall topic.
5. Grow your attention span with a little quiet time.
The average human attention span is eight seconds, Zack says. “This is one second less than the attention span of a goldfish,” she notes. One reason is that modern humans can satisfy our own desire for distraction every waking moment and are never alone with our thoughts.
So fight that tendency by scheduling a few minutes of introspective quiet time into your daily or weekly routine. Formal meditation is one way to achieve this, but so is this simple five-minute exercise. Just giving yourself a few minutes to daydream works too.
6. Become a master at saying no.
None of us like saying no, and all of us like to think we can take on one more project, one more volunteer task, one more social engagement. But that’s a recipe for disaster, Zack warns. Instead, she says, we must learn to say no gracefully.
“It’s perfectly fine, even responsible, not to respond to every request immediately,” she says. And saying no doesn’t make you selfish. “‘No, I can’t right now,’ is not equivalent to ‘No I won’t ever do it,'” she adds. “What you’re really saying is that, just as you’re committed to your current obligation, you’ll be equally committed to their request when the time comes.” (And if you’re wondering which tasks to say no to, this approach to streamlining may help.)
7. Ask the people around you to hold you accountable for focusing.
“Old habits die hard,” Zack notes. “From time to time, you’ll almost certainly go back to your old ways, reverting to task-switching. So ask your family, friends, and co-workers to call you out.”
Not only will this help keep you honest about focusing on one task at a time; it will have extra benefits as well. If the people in your life understand that you’re trying to build focus–and that you want their help in that effort–they’ll be in your corner to help make that happen. Besides holding you to your no-distraction plan, they may look for ways to keep distractions from reaching you. They may even think twice before distracting you themselves.