Multitasking is tricky. Although getting many things done in a day often requires you to manage several to-dos simultaneously, switching gears can actually make you less productive, not more, studies have shown.
However, during a pandemic while everyone is working remotely, multitasking is not just necessary: For many people it is the only option, says Raquel Benbunan-Fich, an associate professor of information systems at Baruch College who specializes in user behavior and multitasking. This is especially true for parents who are struggling to balance work, child care, and doing household chores.
"It's like we are multitasking in another dimension because of the confluence of everything in our professional and our personal life," she says. "We are all on a collision course."
If you want to be more productive, there are steps you can take to become an effective multitasker.
"It is very generic to say multitasking doesn't work in general," Benbunan-Fich says. "Multitasking does work to a certain extent, but it really depends on which tasks you are doing."
If you need to complete a task that requires accuracy and concentration, then multitasking might worsen your performance, she says. If a task isn't stimulating enough, you may not be fully engaged, and that can make you less productive too.
"When I work, I turn off my email notifications because I want to control when I check my email. But I still find myself checking my email several times an hour," Benbunan-Fich says. "Why do people do that? Because they feel like they are not producing enough in their ongoing tasks, so they switch to elevate their levels of arousal to spark their adrenaline. They are in search of stimulation. That's why people go and switch tasks."
Tasks that fall between these two extremes — challenging enough to keep your brain active, but not so challenging that you need to dedicate all your focus — are the ones you can bounce between while still being productive.
The number of times a person switches tasks can also affect how effective they are, Benbunan-Fich found in a study she co-authored. Those who switched tasks most frequently (upwards of 15 times per hour) were most prone to mistakes.
"Medium multitaskers," or those who switch tasks between 10 and 15 times per hour, were more accurate, followed by those who switched the fewest times (less than 10).
In order to multitask more effectively, there are some concrete steps you can take.
Make a list. "My saving grace is my to-do list," Benbunan-Fich says. She has a daily, weekly, and monthly to-do list so she can keep track of daily tasks, along with longer goals.
That's a common trick among productive people. Keita Williams, founder of career coaching service Success Bully, says she likes to create a list of "six high-impact tasks" every day.
"This short and sweet to-do list forces me to practice time honesty," she says. "Time honesty is the ability to allot the right amount of time to each task. Oftentimes, we overestimate how much we will accomplish by underestimating how long it will take to complete a task."
If she completes more than what's on her list, she feels an "incredible sense of accomplishment," she says. But if she doesn't, that is OK too.
Time your tasks. Sometime there is a natural stopping point to tasks, Benbunan-Fich says. For example, if you're writing a paper and you get the introduction done, that is a good time to stop. But if your tasks don't have these organic breaks built in, it might be good to employ the Pomodoro technique, in which you use a timer to break work into 25-minute spurts, separated by small breaks.
Williams also uses this technique but takes an additional step to heighten her ability to focus: She blocks out distractions. "I recommend turning off all alerts during these focus times," she says. "A push alert from email or a social media platform can create a knee-jerk distraction."
Coordinate schedules. If you are sharing space, as many people are during a pandemic, it's important to not only create a schedule for yourself but also to coordinate that schedule with whoever else is in your home so that you're not distracted by a roommate's conference call.
Working parents, for example, might "block out chunks of time and take turns" focusing on work and caring for the children, Benbunan-Fich says.
Only multitask when it actually makes you more productive. "The mistake I see most commonly is confusing busyness for effectiveness," Williams says. "Just because you have a day full of meetings does not mean you have made an impact. Knocking out a long multipage to-do list does not mean you are any closer to achieving your goals."
Benbunan-Fich agrees that multitasking can sometimes feel like a lot is getting done, even when nothing actually is. "Starting multiple tasks may create the illusion of productivity, but it doesn't help with performance if you are not finishing any of those tasks."
By choosing which tasks to bounce between, and how much time you allot to each of them, you might be able to multitask in a productive and efficient way.
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