Why Multitasking Is the Worst Enemy of Productivity


Emails, IMs, WhatsApp and even social media make it increasingly difficult for us to focus at work. Multitasking is getting ever more in demand in the workplace. Ironically, multitasking is where productivity comes to die. Here’s why and what to do instead.

Hey stupid – pay attention

Many employers expect their employees to be able to handle multiple tasks at once. However, ironically, multitasking affects your IQ by making you more stupid. Your IQ actually drops ten points when multitasking, which equals pulling an all-nighter or drinking 3 to 5 glasses of alcohol.

Our brains can only handle 110 bits of information per second. To give you some feeling for this number: when simply communicating with someone we already use up 65 bits of information per second. That means that when you’re talking, you really can’t do anything else.

And to be honest, I’ve been trying to tell this to my wife for years. I simply cannot talk while at the same time drinking a beer AND watching football 😉 .

Another interesting fact is that people who multitask a lot actually have less brain density in the areas of the brain responsible for cognitive and emotional control. This means that a lot of multitasking will affect your mood on the long run.

Switching costs caused by multitasking

Executing a complex mental task consists out of creating a mental construct. See it like a house of cards. You start with making a base, the first storey of cards. However, when you start with the second storey, you get distracted by another task. Consequently, the wind blows away all the cards and you have to start all over again.

It takes up to 40 percent of a person’s productivity when only working tasks for a short period. So switching back and forth from email to the task you’re doing actually wastes around three hours out of your day.

To really get focused on a single task, you need 25 minutes of dedicated work on that task to become deeply immersed in that task and to maintain the mental construct.

Tips to prevent multitasking

Identify your major distractors and eliminate those

To stop multitasking it’s important to start identifying the tasks or environmental factors that keep you from your work. Once you’ve identified some of those factors, you need to focus on eliminating these distractors. For instance, if you constantly get interrupted by email and IM notifications, a tip is to plan blocks of a few hours in which you focus on getting your important tasks done. To make this happen, switch off all applications and notifications on your desktop. For more detailed tips on handling emails, also see this post.

Plan power hours to get those daunting tasks out of the way

It can feel daunting to start with a major tasks, especially if you don’t know where to begin. What helps is to start with something small and work for there. After 20 minutes, go get a glass of water or stretch or something if you’re not in “the zone” yet. Make sure to do this after each 20 minute increment and commit yourself to the task for at least one hour. You will see that more work will flow out of your hands when you work like this.

Build segments into your tasks

By slicing up more complex tasks into smaller tasks reduces your switching costs. Think about it: a single task or project still contains multiple elements. For instance, to get this post published on my blog, I also need to complete multiple tasks. To ensure the pleasure I derive of creating this post, I need to make sure I don’t spend an endless amount of time to create it. I therefore split up the task of creating a blog post as follows:

  • Perform some research first on the internet to make sure I get my facts straight
  • Making sure I find relevant links to other websites that help the reader and increase the credibility of my posts
  • Creating an outline of the post with headings and subheadings
  • Do the actual writing. This interestingly actually takes about only 40 to 50 percent of the time to get this post published
  • Publish the post, meaning editing my own piece, getting relevant pictures, setting a release date etc.

So you see, writing a blog post might seem simple, yet it consists out of quite some individual tasks. The risk is that you don’t recognize this from happening and constantly switch between tasks. When I began with blogging 5 months ago, it took me 2 hours longer to complete a blog post because of this!

This of course does not only apply to writing a blog post, but also writing a report for work, preparing a presentation, getting approval for some project or improvement etc.

Sources and further reads:

Why multitasking is bad for you

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