The Power of Monotasking

Periodically, I like to give myself a productivity audit. A self-assessment of what and how I have been accomplishing things in my personal and professional life. I usually do this when I notice things going a bit awry… a couple worry-filled nights will often clue me in to look at this.

This assessment isn’t merely a count of what I have gotten done over a period of time. Instead, I look at several aspects of my activity. Namely, did I do what I said I would do? Was I clear why and what I was out to accomplish and was I able to focus during the activity?

As I looked at my behavior over the last few weeks, it was clear I got stuff done, but a lot of the activity was frenetic and had me me bounce from one request to the next. A familiar work habit of mine had crept back into my routine. Multitasking mania had returned!

The warning signs were there – I was worried about forgetting things, more tired than usual and not very clear on exactly what I had accomplished. And some things had fallen through the cracks or been done with errors that I usually avoid and that makes me crazy.

People are funny about multi-tasking. I have friends and colleagues that swear that their multitasking skills are what produce their productivity. Examples of inbox diving every few minutes, emailing while on conference calls, reacting to popups and notifications on their laptops and phones, and interrupting co-workers the moment they remember something they wanted to ask or are afraid they will forget are all traits of the modern productive worker. I suspect these behaviors sound familiar, right?

Even now, writing about multitasking, it is taking something not to check why my iPhone just went “ding” right next to me. The urge to grab my phone is strong enough to be considered an addiction. But is all this really multitasking? As most of you know, the brain can’t perform simultaneous tasks. What’s happening is really “switch tasking”, where you instantly go from one thought to another which leads to taking a new action. This happens in seconds and gets repeated hundreds of times a day.

Seems harmless, right? Not according to many experts. In fact, a recent Fast Company article talks about a study at the University of London that found subjects who multitasked experienced drops in their IQ comparable to missing a night’s sleep. Even if multitaskers feel like they’re getting more done, they’re working at a much lower cognitive level and costing companies billions of dollars in lost productivity.

And what about the addictive nature of multitasking? The article also warns that “multitaskers become addicted to the instant gratification that comes after completing a small task, like sending an email. This leads to a dangerous feedback loop that leaves you believing you’re producing at an optimal rate, but this is deceptive.”

If you have kids over 10 years old like I do, observe them using their phone or tablet to see how this plays out. The pace at which they switch from one task to another is mesmerizing. Nothing gets more than a moment of their attention. As soon as one screen opens they can’t wait to switch to something else. However, to be successful in business, uninterrupted, distraction-free deep work is often critical to win the day. Here are some tips that I have found help create more opportunities to focus on the task at hand and minimize distractions. Consider it a guide to “monotasking”.

  1. Control email use: The number one most powerful thing you can do to rediscover the power of focus is to control email use – scheduling when and how often you check your email.  If you promise yourself that you’re going to check email only four times a day, between 9am-6pm, that will really help.
  2. Leave gaps in your schedule: schedule at least 15 minutes between your meetings to complete open items and review the next meeting’s agenda. It’s impossible to focus on what’s in front of you when your head is stuck in what wasn’t completed in the hour before.
  3. Schedule breaks throughout your day: I know, you are too busy to take a break. But numerous studies prove that short (5-10 minute) breaks can keep us from getting bored (aka distracted), help us retain information and create connections and energize our creativity and problem solving.
  4. Remove distractions in your environment: Take a look around your work area. Are there items that need your attention? Left there, they will rob you of your focus… and all you have to do is look at them. Take 2 minutes and move those items from sight and schedule time to deal with them at a later date.

Multitasking is not bad or wrong, but it’s good to be aware of its pitfalls and signs. I would encourage you to do your own productivity assessment and see what you find.

For more information on how JMW boosts productivity for people and teams, click here.