Here’s Your Brain on Task-Switching
Multitasking isn’t your problem. Here’s how to stop task switching and finally focus.
Despite growing evidence and plenty of discussion around how multitasking is not just ineffective but actually bad for your brain, we can’t seem to banish multitasking from our workday. Notifications from multiple devices cascade through our ears, pulling us away from the task we’re trying to focus on. Open tabs in our browsers seem to multiply like rabbits. Suddenly, it seems like the only way we can accomplish anything is to do multiple things at once.
But is multitasking really the problem? As I prepared to write this article, I was pulled away by a phone call, multiple text messages, checking to make sure I responded to an email, and of course a pit stop on Facebook. Psychologists have dubbed this incessant barrage of tasks, necessary or otherwise, that draw us away from what we’re currently doing task switching.
In fact, you’re only able to truly multitask when you’re performing tasks that have become habit within a specific context. An example would be talking to a friend in the car while driving. You’re doing two things at once: holding a conversation, and safely maneuvering your vehicle. But driving is a well-worn habit, and in the context of sitting in the same car you drive every day, it doesn’t require much mental energy.
Which brings us to the real problem: at work, we’re often trying to juggle multiple cognitive tasks and responsibilities at a time that require a lot of mental energy. We can’t actually mentally heavy lift two tasks at once, so we end up task switching instead. Add to the equation the fact that knowledge workers get interrupted an average of 20 times per hour, and you’ve got a recipe for poor focus, mental fatigue, low output, and stifled creativity.
Task switching is expensive. Research shows it takes longer to complete tasks if you keep switching between them, you make more mistakes, burn out faster and lose up to 40 percent of productivity. That has real bottom line costs for your organization.
So what’s the solution? It’s simple: to the best of your ability, focus on one thing at a time.
This doesn’t come easy at first, and it requires some additional mental flexing to build the strength and discipline to stop task switching and focus on just one task at a time. It also requires creating an environment where you aren’t constantly pulled away from the task at hand.
Here a few steps you can take to eradicate task switching from your workday, improve productivity and give your brain a break:
- Try time blocking. First, determine your most important priority for the day. Not priorities — just one. Schedule an hour or two first thing in the day to accomplish this task and this task only — that’s your first time block. Then approach the rest of your day in time blocks — try scheduling meetings back to back, a midday block to respond to emails, and an hour at the end of the day to wrap up projects or make phone calls. By building your schedule in a way that facilitates focusing on one thing at a time, you can prevent your day from devolving into a rabbit trail of unimportant or non-urgent tasks.
- Silence notifications. It takes a real commitment to focus to silence your cell phone, email notifications, and any other blips or dings that interrupt your day. Even the interruption of hearing and ignoring a text message results in lost focus and productivity. Very few messages are so urgent that you can’t check them in 30 minutes, so turn that phone on silent (or even airplane mode) and give your brain the opportunity to focus.
- Create an office culture that respects focus. Your efforts to stop task switching and improve your focus are all for naught if you have coworkers or bosses who expect you to respond to every whim and need, urgent or otherwise. Talk with your supervisor or team about collective steps you can take to improve communication and workflow to prevent interruptions and facilitate focus. Remember that even small steps toward avoiding task switching can make a big difference.
By eliminating task switching from your day, you will see improved focus, more creative energy, and reduced burnout for your and your team. You’ll enjoy your brain free from task switching