The myths of multitasking
For small business owners, time and resources are often scarce, so the idea of working on numerous projects at once seems like a great way to save time and check items off of your to-do list. However, numerous studies conducted over the last few years are proving that working on more than one task at a time can actually result in decreased productivity and increased stress levelsii.
Facts about multitasking
Research has shown that in some cases, people were up to 40 per cent less efficient when working on multiple tasks at once than if they were asked to focus their attention on only one task at a time. Multitasking also results in projects taking longer to complete, due to the switching costs associated with constantly needing to refocus your attentioniv. When you try to focus on multiple projects at once, your brain essentially splits its cognitive ability to try to accommodate the different activitiesi,iii. Further research has shown that the more complex the tasks, the harder it will be for your brain to switch between the twoiv.
Multitaskers are also at risk of increased stress from trying to tackle too many things at once, and the after-effects of multitasking can lead to a lack of focusii. Research conducted at the University of California Irvine found that employees who had easy access to their emails during the day were more likely to flick between open browser windows and experienced ongoing elevated heart rates during the work dayv.
Multitasking can have other negative effects on your daily life that you may not even realise. Short-term memory loss, relationship problems, overeating, and reduced creativity can all stem from trying to do too many things at oncevi.
Why do we feel the urge to multitask?
Most experts agree that there are a few main factors that contribute to the constant need to multitask in today's world. Texting, watching television and reading all at the same time can give us the feeling of fulfilment, as it appears that we are able to handle many different tasks at onceiii. Watching peers and co-workers juggle multiple tasks at a time can encourage a sense of competitiveness, increasing the need to be able to handle as many tasks as they appear to doiii. A study from the University of Utah has also shown that people who believe they are great at multitasking are often the worst at completing multiple tasks at the same timevii.
Resist the urge to multitask
Improving your time management skills, rather than focusing on your multitasking ability, will help you to actually be more productive, and not just look like you are accomplishing everything at once. Here are some simple steps you can take each day to ensure that you don't succumb to the overwhelming need to multitask.
Organise your inbox or in-tray on your desk, so that the most important tasks of the day get done first, and spend a few moments deciding how much time each task will require to complete. Taking the time to plan out your day each morning can help you stay on track as you will already know what needs to be finished before the end of the day. This is especially helpful if you are working towards a deadline and can help to determine if the deadline is realisticviii.
Sticking with a task until it is complete, or to a natural stopping point, will help you stay focusedix. Breaking your day into blocks of time can also help you keep on track. Everyone will have a different time of day where they are most productive, so consider saving the big projects for those times, and let your co-workers know not to interrupt you for a few hours each dayix ?
Delegate tasks to others
Why not reach out to your friends, family and co-workers for a hand when you really do have too much on your plate? It's important to remember that asking for help doesn't mean that you are avoiding your responsibilities or are incapable of completing them. Delegating tasks out to others is an important leadership skill and shows that you value the input of your friends and colleaguesx.
Social media, emails, RSS feeds, meetings, phone calls... the list of possible distractions during the day can be very long. Turning off email and social media notifications and setting your calendar to "busy" can be great ways to minimise the possible interruptions that can crop up.
Take a break
Taking breaks throughout the day is one of the best things you can do to help improve your productivity. Taking short breaks actually increases productivity, because it gives you the chance to rechargexi. Having lunch away from your desk can increase energy levels for the rest of the afternoon and reduce stressxii.