Don't just take my word for it, check out this research done by scientists at Stanford University, or this summary that warns of reduced efficiency, fatigue, and permanent cognitive damage from multi-tasking.
Think about it: how many chronic multi-taskers do you know who aren't frazzled, forgetful, and complaining about always being short of time? The research has shown clearly that these symptoms are made much worse by multi-tasking, they are not just the cause.
Here's another frightening finding; the brain rot brought on by multi-tasking is contagious! Sitting near someone who is actively multi-tasking will reduce your comprehension skills by up to 17%. So much for having busy workers crowded together in an open-plan office.
Multi-tasking degrades your ability to focus, slows you down, and decreases your creativity, no doubt about it. Even though you feel like you are making progress on all 10-25 things on your to-do list, in fact your brain is just responding positively to the dopamine feedback it gives itself each time you inch a priority forward.
Rather than carrying on with that priority, you look for another task that you can inch forward and feel good about. You feel like you are doing a lot, but little gets finished. Sound familiar?
You can shrink your to-do list faster, with less stress and frustration and less long-term damage to your cognitive abilities, if you minimize multi-tasking. Here are a few ideas on how to do this:
- Explicitly schedule time for focused working. Choose whatever days and times work for you, but once you enter that period, interruptions must truly be only for emergencies, and there can be absolutely no distractions like browsing websites or sorting through email. Rationalize the refusal to take calls by pretending you are already on a critical call, if that is what it takes. Turn off your cell phone (yes, really off), so that you can't hear, see, or feel texts or calls. Putting it on silent mode is not usually good enough, because it's too easy to check (just for a sec!) when your mind wanders. Part of what you are doing during this "isolation time" is building the habit of staying on task. Remember, your focus difficulties are likely a bigger source of your problems with multi-tasking than are interruptions. Make it time-consuming and deliberate to interrupt yourself. Finally, use a browser blocker, such as Google's StayFocusd, to disable your favourite news feeds, social media accounts, and shopping sites during your isolation time. Above all, make it difficult to wander.
- Number your priorities. Making a list of action items is a big help by itself, but you also need to number these in priority order. Pick the top five items that you can work on during your scheduled work time, and start with priority number one. Keep working on this one task until either it is completed or you reach an impasse, such as needing to wait for input from someone else. These are the only two conditions under which you should allow yourself to move to the next priority task. If you run out of time before finishing, then the unfinished task simply carries forward. By truly finishing tasks, not just inching them along, you will be amazed at how you are able to shrink your list of action items. Too often, multi-taskers move tasks along just enough to make visible progress before telling themselves it's okay to jump to something else. Big mistake. Finish one job before moving on to the next.
- Eliminate low-priority tasks. Look at your task list and ask yourself, am I the right person to be responsible for this task? Also, does it really need to be done at all? In both cases you are looking for reasons to get these tasks completely off your priority list. Remember, any low-priority task that is left on your list is under risk of not being done well or at all, because of your workload. Delegate whatever you can to maximize the time you have available for those important tasks that only you should do. When you delegate, try to give your subordinate the whole task, don't just hand them your half-finished work and few questions to answer before they give it all back to you for a decision. Instead, give them some decision parameters and trust them to carry on.