Tough love: you need to stop multitasking

We all want to be more productive. We optimize our schedules, we seek the latest research, maybe we experiment with nutrition or sleep patterns. From the hundreds of engineers that we’ve met, we frequently hear the same productivity goal: to reduce multitasking.
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Multitasking is a contradiction of hopes. We want to accomplish more than one thing at once, yet by dividing our attention between multiple tasks, we accomplish each less efficiently. Maybe you can pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time, but you just can’t effectively hold a conversation while also intently reading this article. And yet, we try it all the time. (Quick, how many windows do you have open right now?)

It’s understandable why people feel drawn to multitask. The more that technology enables us, it also adds responsibilities to our roles. Workers manage exceptionally full plates—so, naturally, we attempt to knock items off our to-do list two at a time.

THE COST OF DIVIDED ATTENTION

Between meetings, talking to coworkers, and diving into Deep Work, it might feel like there’s no time to check email or complete administrative tasks. Sitting in the back row of the weekly demo, you feel tempted to catch up on those Slack notifications. However, there’s a cost.

Research shows (again and again) that multitasking is not worth the focus trade-off. Individuals that engage in media multitasking (like, say, talking on iMessage and Slack while a YouTube runs in the background—sound familiar?) are shown to have smaller gray matter density in areas of the brain that link to motivation and detecting errors or conflicts. Another study found that chronic media multitaskers displayed significantly lower performance in memory, for both real-time and long-term memory recall. 

Is it really worth changing our brain structure and weakening our memory, just to get closer to Inbox Zero during a conference call?

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HOW TO QUIT MULTITASKING

Work culture can be shaped by leadership, including negative habits. If managers are often attending meetings with open laptops, or responding to Slacks during the all-hands, they set a precedent for others to do the same. (They might even take it as a sign that they’re expected to do the same.)

It might be unrealistic to completely eliminate multitasking—some days, a fast-approaching deadline just has to be met—but we can aim for focused attention most of the time. Here’s what we’ve learned from our research and our clients.

Set aside time to knock out the small tasks… Quick, concrete to-dos, like submitting a timesheet or updating a Jira ticket, often seem easy to complete during meetings or while waiting for a coworker to write back. In reality, they throw us into “context switching,” in which we fully shift our mental focus to another task, and then back again. No matter how “small,” that shift takes energy. Accomplish more by consolidating all the minor tasks into one get-sh*t-done window of the day, like your first 30 minutes, or that awkward hour in between standup and lunch. By taking care of the small things, you clear mental space to focus on the big things.

…to free up space for genuine Deep Work. Reducing the number of things competing for your attention allows for deeper focus on your highest priority. That makes it extra valuable to protect precious Deep Work time. Think of Deep Work as a multitasking-free zone—no push notifications, no pop-up conversations, even a two-hour moratorium on checking the #cats channel on Slack. It might take some adjustment to silence the urge to open Gmail (or Reddit), but when you’re fully immersed in the depths of a complex project, you’ll see your productivity take off.

Be an intentional participant in meetings. Too often, we “attend” meetings by half-listening and half-chatting-on-Slack. If we’re simply waiting for them to end so we can “get back to work,” we’ll likely only absorb some of the information—and we won’t think of pertinent follow-up questions. Instead, we’ll float through, skip out, and realize the shortcomings when we sit at our desks and try to actually start that work. Can you leave your laptop at your desk? How about assigning one note-taker so the rest of attendees can purely listen? If you’re attending remotely (especially in the era of social distancing), turn on Do Not Disturb and expand Zoom to full screen mode so that you don’t run into visual distractions.

Control input to enhance output. Even the most focused of workers can be disrupted by factors outside our control. News alerts, meeting reminders, and final calls for lunch orders all seep into our working time. Take control by actively turning off the notifications that do not serve you. Set email filters or auto-responses to handle lower priority things that pop up, and consider silencing the sounds and red dots to reduce overstimulation. We’re so used to active input that it seems like white noise—but you’ll notice the difference once you have a fraction of your previous activity. 

Rethink that always-open email window. Remember when emails were more like snail mail than text messages? Infrequent, in-depth, and only checked once a day? Now, email is a constant given—but it doesn’t have to be. Try choosing three times in your day to check email, like first thing in the morning, right after lunch, and mid-afternoon. If you’re on-call for more frequent emails, set up helpful filters, like a push notification for specific senders or topics, and a straight-to-folder action for happy hour invitations and less-pressing subjects.

Give your phone a timeout. You have enough to manage from 9 to 5. Add Instagram alerts, breaking news, and texts from your mother, and you’re working double-time. Treat your phone the same as your work computer: set aside time to focus purely on personal updates, like keeping in touch with family while the coffee brews. After that, put your phone on silent mode. It’s not going anywhere.

Close. Your. Tabs. Perhaps the most mental clutter of all comes in the form of, oh, about 42 open tabs in your browser. At the very least, try having one window for key, pertinent tabs, like work-related sites. Use a second window to consolidate the less urgent tabs, like articles to read later, or YouTube clips to watch during your lunch break. By minimizing the number of tabs that distract your brain, you’re able to focus more intently on the ones you do see.

Multitasking feels so omnipresent in modern culture that it might seem impossible to reduce. Yet, incorporating just a few of the tips above can restructure your mindset. After a few days, you’ll likely notice sharper focus and less stress.

What’s your biggest obstacle in multitasking less? We’re always working on solutions—send us your questions or best practices.