For many workers around the world, Covid-19 has presented fresh demands on our time, leading to an increase in multitasking in a bid to fit everything in. But what if we told you this was hurting, not helping, your productivity?
Multitasking is pretty much seen as a necessity in the modern world. The ability to do several things at once – even if it’s something as apparently simple as emailing and talking at the same time – is taken for granted. But the belief that engaging in several tasks at once means we are more productive is, in fact, a myth.
Research by the American Psychological Association shows that what we think of as multitasking is ineffective and inefficient. That’s because the term multitasking is a misnomer. In his book, The Myth of Multitasking, Dave Crenshaw explains: “When most people refer to multitasking, they are really talking about switch tasking. No matter how they do it, switching rapidly between two things is just not very efficient or effective.”
According to further studies, multitasking takes as much as 40% more time than focusing on one task at a time, while the University of California found it takes 25 minutes to return to a task that we’ve been distracted from. So, if multitasking isn’t working, what’s the solution?
1. Become a ‘task opportunist’
In an article for Forbes, Shani Harmon and Renee Cullinan advise people to stop trying to do everything at once, and instead to become ‘task opportunists’ – seizing opportunities to match tasks with their appropriate timeframes.
First, they suggest sorting your to-dos into three ‘buckets’ (small, medium and large) based on how long each will take to complete. Once you know this, you can then optimise your day to achieve maximum productivity. As Harmon and Cullinan suggest, handling small and medium tasks in short bursts allows for even more focus on the large items, which are typically the most important.
2. ‘Chunk’ your day
Productivity expert Marianne Page suggests that true productivity occurs when we ‘block’ our day into chunks of time. For example, 90 minutes with a short break in between each chunk. We then assign a task, part of a project or area of business to each time slot and cannot deviate from these tasks for the time given.
“The break in between allows you to recharge and switch your focus to the next task or area of business,” explains Page.
3. Embrace the Pomodoro Technique
This technique breaks tasks into bitesize chunks – usually 25 minutes each – with breaks in between. It’s a time-management technique developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. While studying at university, Cirillo often struggled to use his study time efficiently. As the story goes, he grabbed the tomato-shaped kitchen timer the method is named after, set it for a few minutes and studied intensely for a short burst. He then rewarded himself with a break.
4. Go deep
Developing your willpower is another skill that pays productivity dividends. In his Wall Street bestseller, Deep Work, author and professor Cal Newport celebrates the power of giving a task our undivided attention, describing the ability to perform deep work as “the superpower of the 21st century”.
Newport proposes four principles for deep work – cultivating an isolated space and timeframe in which to work free from distraction, turning off social media, resisting the urge to switch tasks when we become bored and ‘draining the shallows’ – minimising the amount of time you have to spend on time-sapping smaller tasks.
5. Be more of a hunter
Going further still is the Hunter Method, coined by Aytekin Tank, the founder of JotForm, which makes software for creating online forms. An extension of Mark Twain’s famous advice to “eat the frog” (which recommends starting the day by tackling the task you least want to do), Tank suggests focusing on just one task a day – but making completion of that task your goal.
Tank’s technique is inspired by early human survival tactics. “If the hunter made a successful hunt for that day, his family would eat. If not, they wouldn’t. It was that simple,” he writes. “He didn’t have time to check email, attend time-sucking meetings or send follow-up emails. And, he certainly didn’t have time to make to-do lists.”