Hints & Tips Blog

So, you think you’re good at multi-tasking?

I’ve often heard leaders and managers say with pride that they’re great at multi-tasking, or alternatively, worry about not having this particular ‘skill’. I’m going to come clean; I’m not good at multi-tasking, and it’s taken me years to be ok with that. So why am I relaxed about this now? Because I’ve learned that multi-tasking doesn’t work…

We multi-task as we feel we have too much to do – we need to somehow get more done, we need to create a short cut, and multi-tasking gives us a quick hit of achievement, a short-term sense that we’re making twice as much progress. The reality, however, is that whilst we might feel like we are getting two, or even more, things done at once, we’re probably just taking twice as long to do them half as well. But the lower quality of work is not immediately apparent, as you don’t get to see it side by side with what you would have produced if you’d focused purely on one task.

Research agrees.

In 2020, Stanford University conducted research that concluded multi-tasking is less productive than doing a single thing at a time. They found that people who regularly switch between tasks or allow themselves to be inundated via several streams of information cannot pay attention, recall information, or switch from one job to another quite as well as those who complete one task at a time. In essence they found that if you try to do two things at once, your brain lacks the capacity to perform both tasks successfully.

Many other studies have shown that for most people it can take about 10-15 minutes to really hit your stride when dealing with a task that is anything other than straightforward – and how many of those do we have these days? It takes 15 consecutive minutes of focus before you can fully engage in a task. Once you do, you fall into a state of increased productivity, that scientists call flow’. Research shows that people in a ‘flow state’ are five times more productive than they otherwise would be. But you can’t get into your flow if you’re constantly checking emails, looking at your company’s WhatsApp group or Teams channels, answering a call, preparing for your next meeting and generally switching frequently between tasks. You’re doing lots of things, but probably not very well.

Are you really a great multi-tasker?

So how about those people who consider themselves to be great multi-taskers? Are some of us just gifted, or lucky?

Back to the Stanford research. This also compared groups of people, based on their tendency to multi-task and also their belief that it helps their performance. They found that people who multi-tasked a lot, and felt that it boosted their performance—were actually worse at multi-tasking than those who liked to do a single thing at a time. They concluded that those who frequently multi-task actually performed less well overall, given they were less able to organise their thoughts effectively, reflect and filter out irrelevant information. Plus they were found to be slower at successfully switching from one task to another.

You may of course be the exception to the rule, but most of us aren’t. So try breaking the habit, stop multi-tasking, find your ‘flow’ and see how much more productive you can be.

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