Breaking the Multitasking Habit

How to get and stay focused once and for all


Think you’re a great multitasker? Unfortunately, research says otherwise. Countless studies have shown that self-professed “skilled” multitaskers perform significantly worse on tests measuring concentration, problem-solving ability and memory than individuals who prefer to focus on one task at a time. In one University of London study, multitasking was even shown to lower test subjects’ IQs.

How’s that for a wake-up call?

Multitasking can be a hard habit to break, especially if you like being in constant contact with friends or the first to know about breaking news. Effective monotasking means setting aside notifications, social media mentions, emails and texts until it’s “their turn,” which takes patience and discipline. But as Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, says:

Change might not be fast, and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.

While you work on establishing your new, more productive work style, here are some things you can do to stay focused on the (single) task at hand.

Go dark.

Sometimes the most obvious solution to a problem is the most difficult to implement. The best way to avoid digital distractions is to make yourself completely unavailable to them.

Shutting off your phone and restricting personal browsing during work hours may seem extreme, but you’ll quickly find that they’ll do wonders for your productivity. If you’re short on willpower, try an app like SelfControl or Anti-Social, both of which restrict your access to distracting websites while you work.

Set expectations.

Changes in your behavior — like not responding immediately to texts, calls or IMs — can be harder on those around you than they are on you. Let your friends, family and colleagues in on your plan to improve your focus, and set clear expectations for response times. Offer close friends and family an alternative way to contact you in the event of a legitimate emergency.

Create detailed task lists.

If a task is too complex, it can be difficult to focus on just one aspect of it at a time. Break complicated or long-term projects into bite-sized to-dos, and carefully prioritize them. Be sure the first task is completely finished before you move on to the second, and so on. You’ll be surprised at how this level of hyper-focus will improve your efficiency.

While a simple list might be all it takes to keep your tasks organized, if you tend to be more visual, you might want to try a Kanban board, which makes it easy to move tasks up and down in priority and from “to do” to “doing” to “done.”

Watch the clock.

If, after a few days of disciplined monotasking, you’re not convinced that you’re more productive, try tracking your time. Identifying how long it really takes to complete a “time-consuming” task when you’re not distracted will make the benefits of monotasking crystal clear and reinforce your decision to change.


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