Multitasking can make you feel productive and effective. Even though you may have heard whispers about multitasking being a myth, it can feel like you alone know the secret sauce to getting two things done at once. (Trust us, we’ve felt it too.)
Unfortunately, the whispers are right. Turns out, our brains literally aren’t wired to do more than one thing at a time. Even when it feels like you’re getting two tasks done at once, what you’re actually doing is switching between two tasks at lightning speed. This process—called task switching—takes precious brainpower, even if you don’t realize it.
Multitasking may be a myth, but most of us still end up multitasking at one point or another. In fact, our research shows that nearly three in four employees (72%) feel pressure to multitask during the day. If you’re one of those people, we’re here to help. In this article, we’ll show you the science behind multitasking and give you six tips to help you be more productive.Read: Overcoming burnout in a distributed world
There are several myths associated with multitasking. In this section, we’ll break down each myth and give you the truth behind the science. But first, it’s helpful to understand exactly what multitasking is.
Multitasking is the attempt to do more than one thing at the same time. For example, multitaskers check their email while attending a meeting or schedule phone calls while they’re creating a pitch deck. Even though most of us multitask, the human brain is incapable of doing two things at once. Instead, when you attempt to multitask, you’re actually switching between two tasks at lightning speed.
As nice as it would be to do two things at once, studies show our brain simply isn’t capable of paying full attention to more than one thing. In fact, our brain has evolved to single-task, or only think about one thing at a time.
When we think we’re multitasking, we’re actually switching between two tasks really quickly. Any time you switch between two things there is a switch cost. In addition to making more errors, individuals almost always take longer to complete two tasks simultaneously.
Even if you’ve heard that multitasking is a myth, it’s hard to conceptually grasp how taxing it is to task switch. If you’ve been multitasking for a while, you may feel like you’ve developed multitasking skills. You probably don’t even notice the negative effects anymore, since they’re part of your day to day.
If you feel like you’re capable of multitasking, you’re not alone. A study found that our perceived ability to multitask had little correlation to whether or not we were actually multitasking effectively. We think we’re adeptly at juggling multiple tasks, even if that isn’t quite the case.Focus more, stress less with Asana
If you’re doing two things at once—even if those things aren’t perfectly optimized—aren’t you getting more done?
In fact, it’s the opposite. Research done by Dr. David Meyer shows that even these brief mental blocks that happen as a result of context switching cost as much as 40% of someone’s productive time. Because it takes mental effort to switch between tasks, multitasking affects your ability to get work done efficiently and effectively.Read: Efficiency vs. effectiveness in business: Why your team needs both
You may have heard people say there are two, or sometimes three, different types of multitasking. They’ll separate task switching from context switching and from attention residue. But these aren’t different types of multitasking—they’re the cause-and-effect elements that lead to ineffective multitasking.
Here’s how they break down:
Multitasking is the attempt to do two or more things simultaneously.
Context switching (otherwise known as task switching or switch tasks) is what you’re doing while multitasking: switching between one task and another.
As a result of performing so many tasks so quickly, you experience attention residue, which is when you’re still thinking about a previous task even though you’ve moved onto another piece of work.
Even if you avoid multitasking in your personal life, you may find yourself multitasking at work. If so, you’re not alone. According to our research, the average knowledge worker switches between 10 apps up to 25 times per day. Additionally, over one-quarter (27%) of workers say that actions and messages are missed when switching apps and 26% say app overload makes individuals less efficient.
There’s even a name for switching between two technologies: media multitasking. In addition to the usual downsides of multitasking, media multitasking has also been shown to negatively impact long-term memory and working memory.Centralize your work in Asana
Multitasking isn’t just bad for your productivity—it’s also bad for your mental health. According to our research, seven in ten knowledge workers (71%) experienced burnout at least once in the last year. But burnout and multitasking go hand in hand. In the same survey, we found that two- thirds (65%) of people who feel uncomfortable not having access to their phones report experiencing burnout, compared to 45% of people who aren’t uncomfortable being separated from their device.Read: Feeling overworked? Strategies for individuals and teams to regain balance
The opposite of multitasking is called single-tasking, or monotasking. Instead of jumping between different tasks in rapid succession, single-tasking allows you to align your attention with your intention for the day and focus on one task at a time. There are a variety of ways to achieve this level of flow—and a variety of benefits, too.Read: 6 tips to harness the power of flow state at work
Timeboxing is a goal-oriented time management strategy that helps you focus and get work done quickly. When you create a timebox, you’re setting an expectation for how long a task should take. Each task should get its own timebox, to ensure you’re only focusing on that one piece of work during the timebox. Then when the timebox begins, ignore all distractions until the box is over.
Timeboxing ensures you’re completely finished with your work before switching to a new task. According to productivity research from UC Berkeley’s Becoming Superhuman Lab, team members who engage in a “Focus Sprint,” (a period of time where they do not need to toggle between apps or constantly monitor the inbox) report being 43% more productive.Read: Try timeboxing: The goal-oriented time management strategy
Time blocking is similar to timeboxing, but instead of assigning each task a timebox, you group similar tasks together and complete them all in a time block. With time blocking, you’re protecting your focus time from unwanted notifications and distractions. This is especially helpful for email—according to our research, eight in ten (80%) respondents report working with their inbox or other communication apps open. Every time you get a notification, however, you’re pulled out of focus time.
Instead, schedule an hour time block in the morning to check your email, and then another hour time block right before you sign off for the day to respond to any emails that came in while you were working. Then, for the rest of the day, you can focus on other tasks without getting distracted by constant email notifications.Read: Guru aligns their marketing and sales teams with Asana
Even without timeboxing or time blocking your calendar, use do not disturb features to protect your focus time. This is a great way to align your attention with your intentions. If you know you need to get a project done but you frequently get distracted by notifications, use do not disturb to allow yourself to get in the flow.
Do not disturb isn’t just for your computer, either. To make the most of this technique, make sure to turn notifications off on your cell phone, too.Read: Stride increases client retention with Asana
If you want to find a way to make taking breaks productive, the Pomodoro Technique might be for you. A pomodoro is a 25-minute work session, after which there’s a five-minute break. After doing four pomodoros, you take a longer 20 or 30 minute break. By working in short spurts, you’re more likely to be productive while staying motivated.
Because you’re intensely focused during a pomodoro, it’s easier to avoid multitasking and just focus on one thing. Then, during your pomodoro break, you can check your phone, browse social media, get up for a snack, or reply to emails.Read: The Pomodoro Technique: How it helps boost team productivity
Sometimes, it’s tempting to multitask because everything seems equally important. You might be working on a blog post or designing a new image, but as soon as another request comes in, you feel the need to jump on it and get it done.
Understanding the relative impact of each task helps you better prioritize them. That way, if a request comes in, but it’s less important than what you’re working on, you can resist the urge to multitask and focus on what you were already doing. Alternatively, if a new request comes in that’s more important than the task you’re focused on, you can turn your attention to the new request and set aside what you were working on.
MITs, or most important tasks, take the idea of aligning your priorities to the next level. You can’t get everything done in one day, but if you have a lot of high-priority tasks, you can feel pressure to juggle them all. With MITs, you can clarify which tasks are most important for the day and get those done. Once you finish those tasks, you can comfortably sign off for the day without any guilt or stress.
According to a recent study by Dr. Sahar Yousef, a cognitive neuroscientist at UC Berkeley, MITs can drastically improve procrastination and reduce burnout. Yousef launched a three-week challenge with an entire organization around daily MIT setting. By committing to setting daily MITs—and sharing those MITs with the team via Slack—Yousef’s team saw a 28% increase in individual productivity and a 42% reduction in burnout (from the CEO all the way down to the newest intern).
It’s not easy to stop multitasking, especially if this is a common part of your day to day. But when you stop trying to do multiple things at once and instead focus on one thing at a time, you’ll find you’re more engaged, productive, and impactul.
For more tips, read our article on how to be more productive at work.