If you were to come by my desk early Wednesday morning, you would have found me listening to the GovLoop State and Local Government Innovators Virtual Summit on my iPhone while I was working on a presentation and messaging with a colleague about an event we were planning. I was also answering emails in between a couple phone calls from community partners. You can probably guess how well any of those things turned out. Without being able to give my full attention to any one thing, I spread out a finite amount of superficial attention among each of the things I was working on.
When we are bombarded with so much information 24 hours a day from so many different sources, and we are all looking for ways to accomplish a never ending pile of responsibilities at work, multitasking can feel like a really sexy way to get everything done at once. The problem is that multitasking doesn’t work. A recent article in Entrepreneur cited a Stanford University study that found that multitasking was less productive than doing one thing at a time. When people are constantly bombarded with input from many different sources, people are more likely to have difficulties paying attention, have difficulty recalling information or being able to go back and forth between various tasks. In other words, people who multitask have more problems working on multiple tasks!
The Stanford study found that people who reported that they regularly engaged in several tasks at once believing it helped their performance actually performed poorly compared to people who work on one thing at a time. Since your brain is only wired to work on one thing at a time, it is unable to quickly switch from one task to another. So what could I have done differently to manage everything on my to-do list on Wednesday morning? The key, as always, is planning ahead.
One of the best ways you can help yourself get off to a good start in the morning at work is to spend your last 15 minutes of the day prioritizing your task list for the following day. Sit down with your online calendar and your to-do list and begin putting together tomorrow’s game plan. Block out periods of time where you can work uninterrupted on a specific project. You can fill in extra time with non-essential tasks like email and returning phone calls. Be sure to build in time for one or two breaks during the day where you can physically leave your desk and move around.
Once you have your priority list put together, make that dedicated project time sacred. Turn off the email notifiers on your devices and put them away where you can’t see incoming messages. Do not answer the phone during this time but rather focus completely on what you are doing. If people tend to come by your desk to chat, consider having lunch with them instead. Everything you do to minimize distractions will improve your focus on your project and you will be able to accomplish it in much less time than if you were constantly being pulled away.
It’s not easy to break the habit of multitasking if you have been doing it for some time. Particularly in today’s culture that rewards being “busy”, many people associate multitasking with being efficient and productive. Sadly, multitasking is just the opposite, causing our productivity to slow and exaggerating any problems we may have with concentration or organization. Once you break the habit though, you will find that you are much more effective in your work, as well as less stressed trying to “get it together”. What strategies do you have for dealing with multiple tasks and competing priorities? Sound off below!