Here's how to stop multitasking (and become more productive)

Published on March 15, 2021
multitasking at work

Are you good at doing two things at once?

Here is the thing: you are not. Nobody is.

Multitasking simply doesn't work. And there have been countless studies on the matter. However, it is important to understand the science behind it in order to realize just how crucial it is to break away from this terrible habit.

Imagine your typical workday at the office. You are trying to focus on one task but you keep checking your email. You are also being bombarded with DMs and phone notifications. If you feel like you are in your element like this, then you are simply fooling yourself.

No, you are not good at multitasking because there is simply no such thing.

Doing a task requires attention and your attention can't be in two places at once. Studies have confirmed that multitasking is incredibly detrimental to productivity, it brings you more stress and anxiety, and it can even bug your brain in weird ways.

Here Office Topics will explore this phenomenon in depth so you can understand the delicate forces at play and show you how to break away from this unproductive behavior.

What is multitasking?

multitasking in the office

If you're doing two or more things at the same time, you are multitasking.

But, as we already established, there's no such thing as multitasking because we are physically incapable to focus on more than one thing at a time.

But wait, as simple as this may seem, there are cruel forces at play here.
There are actually more than one way to multitask.
So let's figure out just what kind of multitasker you are by looking at...

The types of multitasking

#1. Task toggle

Let's say you have to write a report for your boss, read an article as part of your research, and keep track of the heated Slack team chat. Constantly switching between these tasks will cost you way more energy and time than you think.

And there is a simple practical experiment you can try yourself to convince yourself in case you are doubtful. Just follow these steps.

  1. Take a piece of paper and write down the following sentence: I am the most proficient multitasker in the world.
  2. Now, count the letters in the sentence and number them. The first one is 1, the second is 2 and so on.
  3. Then, take two pieces of paper. Use one to write the sentence again but every time you add a letter, write down its number on the other piece of paper.
  4. You will quickly realize just how inefficient the whole process is.

#2. Attention lag

While task toggling is an obvious culprit, there is another hidden layer to multitasking. It would be great if you switch to single-tasking as soon as possible but mind the “attention lag” and don’t let it bother you too much because it is just the way our brains work. Wait, what is attention lag?

Basically, when you jump from one task to another, your brain has to shift its focus. And this is actually a very taxing process that requires a lot of energy. Even though you have started the next task, it will take your brain some time to adjust to the new goal ahead of you.

During this period, you feel as if you are in a distracted state because parts of your brain are still thinking about the previous task. But don’t worry about it, just keep thinking about the new task and eventually, your brain will summon its resources and you will be able to focus once again.

#3. Task pairing and blending

This is actually the only type of multitasking that can actually boost your productivity if done correctly. Here are some examples:

  • Listening to a podcast while exercising (pairing).
  • Writing down notes while reading work reports (blending).
  • Listening to useful materials while looking for images and/or designs (pairing).

It all comes down to smart pairing of tasks that either do not require the same senses and abilities or could be blended in one bigger task due to their similar nature. For example, listening to useful content while writing is not a good task pairing because both require the same parts of your brain that analyze speech.

Multitasking in the office - a silent killer of productivity

multitasking at work

This is a chronic problem that thousands of organizations experience without even realizing that it exists. This is especially prevalent in companies with an open culture where anyone can contact anybody at any time.

Let's look at some common distractions that contribute to multitasking in the workplace:

  • Email
  • Direct messaging
  • Team chats
  • Daily meetings
  • Conference calls
  • Showing up at somebody's desk uninvited
  • Notifications
  • Looking for the perfect background music to work to

How are you supposed to focus on your tasks when you might be distracted by any of these at any given moment? And the worst aspect of this is that some knowledge workers don't even view these as distractions and try to balance them with the actual work they are supposed to be doing.

Well, the thing is, multitasking can lower your productivity by up to 40%.
It would be great if you identify this as a problem and take action to reduce the cases of multitasking in your workdays.

But what if the company culture you are part of is hectic and abuses mass communication?

In that case, the solution to your problem lies in your ability to isolate yourself as well as possible while you are working.

How to stop multitasking and be more productive

stop multitasking at work

Don't worry, you are already on the right path to become more productive by reducing or eliminating the time you waste on multitasking. You will surely develop your own strategies to do so but here are at least 5 methods you can try.

#1. Set up your work environment

Make sure your desk is clean and free of distracting items. This is your workstation and it should be optimized to put you in a state of focus. If possible, use this station for work only. On the other hand, you can use little tricks to trick your brain into work mode. For example, keep a pair of computer glasses on your desk and wear them only when you work. This way your brain will associate the habit with the work mode you want to get into.

#2. Make time for deep work

Have a designated period of time in your workdays when you close the email tab and shut off all instant messaging. Leave your phone on for emergency calls only. Sit down and get to work. Focus on one task at a time and tackle them with determination. Exert all the willpower you have to keep your focus.

Practice this work habit every single day in order to cultivate the focus that will allow you to become a god of productivity.

#3. Allow yourself to take breaks

It's time to change the relationship you have with the clock and realize that it is actually your friend. Start tracking just how much time you can work with extreme focus but take a little break as soon as you feel fatigued.

Reset your energy and cultivate an ability to refocus. For instance, you can work for 30 minutes and then take a five-minute break, or you can work up to an hour, and then take a 10-15 minute break.

#4. Minimize distractions

You have to do everything possible in order to minimize the distractions that you are dealing with on a daily basis. Email, instant messaging, phone notifications, etc.

In your next meeting, announce that you would like to have some portion of the workday to yourself so you can focus on your work. Politely explain that you would like not to be disturbed during this period and that you won’t be checking your email and DMs.

#5. Make friends with boredom

Work can be boring. But remind yourself that boredom is your friend. And this is the only way you can achieve the state of “deep” work that you are after.

And in case you are tempted to open a tab with some fun content, then perhaps you can resort to block these websites and get back to them only when you are done for the day.

Become a single-tasker to increase your productivity

multitasking in the workplace

The modern office is a hellscape of distractions that lead us into the vicious cycle of multitasking. But if you have already identified this as a problem, then you are way ahead of your peers.

Doing one thing at a time actually comes with a bundle of positives. So make sure to include single-tasking blocks in your productive daily routine at work to achieve great results.

Your ability to focus will become a lot stronger. When you single-task, you are able to work on what should be done as opposed to what could be done. And, as you know, 80% of our results come from 20% of our efforts. However, those efforts should be properly directed.

You will become more creative. Wait, what? How is that possible? How could limiting your options could lead to creativity? Well, the brain is a weird thing. But just think about it for a second. We are intelligent and inventive creatures, our most brilliant ideas actually come when we have been cornered.

You will get rid of some stress. Multitasking wastes a lot of energy and slows down your productivity. Therefore, you are more likely to be stressed about being behind schedule. But with the power of single-tasking, you will be able to tackle so much more and you will feel like you are on top of your game.

Key takeaways

  • Multitasking leads to lower productivity and more stress and anxiety.
  • Multitasking doesn’t even exist because we are unable to split our attention between two or more tasks.
  • There are various ways in which multitasking affects us.
  • You can employ various tactics to reduce multitasking and become more productive.
  •  Single-taskers are way more productive, do better quality work, and experience less stress.
Written by:
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Alex Alexiev
co-founder / office worker
Alex has been an office worker for more than 10 years. He is dedicated to helping other office workers to achieve the perfect life-work balance through well-being, effective communication, and building productive habits.

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