When I was younger, I had an obsession with being productive. I wanted to be the person to get there early, to tear through work, and churn out brilliance with coffee in hand, because I was busy getting things done and kicking ass.

Enter multitasking. I thought I could kill two birds with one stone by listening to an audiobook while working on a design, or replying to simple emails while on the phone. Genius! The world will never catch up with me, I thought. I’ll be unstoppable.

Right?

Stop kidding yourself: Multitasking is a lie

After years of accomplishing far less than I’d hoped and being left feeling exhausted, I realized something: there’s no such thing as multitasking. When you try to do multiple things at once, you actually get the reverse effect that you’re looking for. You get fewer things done, slower, and at the expense of real quality.

Juggling tasks just doesn’t work. Rather than accomplishing lots of things simultaneously, what you’re actually doing is switching between tasks very quickly, thus dividing up your attention, and thus allocating less memory for each undertaking. When you spend less energy on lots of tasks, you’re not giving yourself enough brain power to fully accomplish anything.

Computers suffer from the same limitations. You can have all the storage you want, but if you don’t have the RAM to run multiple applications at once, your machine will just stall or freeze. If you’ve got too many tasks running, all vying for memory, you’re going to notice a significant lag, which may result in hair loss and hardware being chucked across the room.

So what are we meant to do? How can we get all the things done in our already busy lives? The solution is simple – just do one thing at a time. But there’s something even juicier that happens when we do this. Let’s dive a little deeper.

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Getting in the groove unlocks your full potential

There’s a reason why humans need a solid 7-8 hours a sleep at night. If all you did was take little 30 minute naps throughout the day, you’d eventually crash. Even if we got a total of 8 hours of sleep in very small increments, we’d still reach a point where we’d crack and crumble. The math doesn’t explain it, but the science does. We need those long hours of snooze time in order achieve deep REM sleep. Without it, our body and minds don’t have the ability to fully recuperate. If you don’t believe me, ask any couple with a newborn baby of the importance of deep sleep.

Just like we need a our long sleeping time, we need long, uninterrupted periods of time to reach our full potential in our work. Brilliance doesn’t come in 15 minute bursts. It comes after hours of steady, unbroken focus.

Some people will call it “getting in the zone” or “living in the moment”. Hokey phrases aside, it’s easy to understand, and we’ve all experienced this before. You know the feeling. Our true genius comes out of hiding when we give ourselves the space and the silence to focus on the task at hand. Twitter_logo_blue_20px

Of course, achieving this state is easier said than done. If you’re anything like me, the temptation to multitask is strong in you. You’re drafting an email to a client when your coworker messages you with a quick question about design assets, so you reply. Seems harmless, right? But it’s those little moments, those tiny distractions that add up and deal the most damage to your focus. We end up spending half our time working, and half our time getting refocused, and in the end, we do a lot less work very poorly.

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To break the habit of multitasking, you have to practice tabling all distractions.

Multitasking is a habit, because humans are wired for getting distracted. The fight-or-flight instincts that help us stay alert in our surroundings are what trigger us to impulsively check our phones when we hear a little “Ping!”. But there are things we can do to give ourselves the upper hand.

Here are a four concrete ways we can curb these multitasking cravings:

  1. Nix the notification badges – These little buggers are notorious for stealing our attention. This goes for your phone and your computer. I promise, nothing happening on Twitter is more important than your undivided focus on your work. Email notification badges are perhaps the hardest to let go of, but give it a shot!
  2. Only check email twice a day – Do you really need to look at every single email as the come in? By choosing a set number of times when you can check email, not only do we give ourselves more time to focus, but we also train others who communicate with us that they can’t have our attention at any moments notice, which sets much healthier expectations in our relationships.
  3. Turn off messaging apps – This one might be the hardest to let go of, and for some, it might not be possible due to the nature of their job. However, as one of the worst culprits for distractions, it’s worth examining. If you’re not sold on this idea just yet, consider this: Who are the people most likely to message you? If you don’t address their concern in a few hours, what will the consequences be? I’m betting that most of the time, your silence will not result in the end of the world.
  4. Turn off podcasts, videos or even music with lyrics – Although not for everyone, I encourage you to experiment with this one. We want to avoid attempting to absorb the words and information of the thing we’re listening to while also concentrating on the task at hand. This is you failing at multitasking. Give working in silence a try, see how that sits with you. If it really doesn’t feel good, you can reintroduce your choice of white noise to your routine, be music or something else.
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Multitasking is a difficult habit to break, so give yourself the space to practice, the patience to try again, and the playfulness ease the pressure. We all want to feel productive, but be mindful of how you’ve defined this word. The feeling that we crave so much when we want to be “productive” doesn’t come from checking off boxes. It comes from deep concentration, during which we’ve struck gold.

Comments
  • Lovely article, I really recognised myself. Will certainly try these tips out in order to improve the quality of my work! Thanks 🙂

    • Annie Sexton

      Glad to hear it! New year, new you. 🙂

  • John

    I don’t know how many times I have heard this advice but I keep falling into the same traps. This is a nicely written article and inspires me to get back on track!

    • Annie Sexton

      Thank you! Yeah, it’s super easy to slip into “multitasking” and not even realize it – I’m definitely guilty of that. I can usually tell by how tired I am at the end of the day.

  • I do love a good podcast while I’ll work. I feel that a lot of things don’t require our full attention.

    I must admit my best work has been when I was in the zone not doing any other thing. I know that deep focus can be a very good thing. Therefore I must try this.

    • Annie Sexton

      I have lots of friends who will swear by listening to music or a podcast while working, so it definitely depends on the person. I also think it depends on the kind of work you’re doing (e.g. writing an email vs. designing a graphic)

  • I too am a “Multitasking guy”, and sometimes I find that focusing on more things at once will lead me to do things just by reflex, and that’s not good.

    Thanks for the advices in this article, I will consider some of them.