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Strategic insights
Multitasking is not good for anyone

Written by on April 6, 2007

Carmine Coyote has written an excellent article on multitasking and how ineffective it makes us.

Multi-tasking isn't a solution. It's a vast and growing part of the problem.
People who believe they can multi-task effectively share a dangerous delusion: that paying attention to several things simultaneously actually increases their available attention above 100 percent, so they can still focus fully on every task. This is logical nonsense. It's like saying you can spend your total income on food and housing and have the same amount available to spend on an expensive vacation.

- Carmine Coyote

That is very good advice. Most companies think that you can easily do more than one thing - some even go to the extent of defining their success by the number of tasks they have to handle. The truth is that it does not work that way.

How long will it take to convince everyone, including the grab-and-go organizations and macho Hamburger Managers out there that true multi-tasking isn't possible? That what they are doing is lowering productivity, raising stress levels, and turning creative, productive people into semi-idiots?

- Carmine Coyote

And, it is not only companies that think this way. Many people feel guilty and less productive if they only have a single item on today's list of tasks.

BTW: Pressure from within is one of the highest causes for stress - and most frequent cause for burning out.

I used to be a person who was "thrived on multitasking", I constantly did more than one thing, and I managed or was part of more than one project at the time.  But, the number of projects, things, tasks, ideas and general interruptions caused me to become less productive with each job. During this time it also was not unusual that I worked 60-70 hours per week.

1-2 years ago I was forced to change how I worked. I had to become more productive and less stressed -simultaneously. I solved it by moving away from the multi-tasking life. I now get more done, in less time, at higher quality - and most importantly without feeling stressed.

My work day basically looks like this:

08:00 - 10:00: Check email and solve whatever small task that might have come my way (I do this from my home, away from any interruptions).
10:00 - 12:00: Work on today's project
12:00 - 12:30: Lunch, check email
12:30 - 15:45: Continue working on today's project.
15:45 - 16:00: Check email, plan for tomorrow

A few things to notice:

  • I only check my emails 3 times each day
  • I have a fixed two hour window in which I work on the little things (the things that usually caused interruptions)
  • The rest of the time is spent on whatever project I am working on that day.

The important thing is to:

  1. Never work on more than one thing.
  2. Get small things out of the way.
  3. Always keep you list of projects low - the same goes your list of To Do's. Reduce your mental workload. My current list contains 3 tasks/projects - and I am only working on one of them.
  4. Kill projects that you cannot finish. Never push them to a new deadline or say "I will put this on hold to a future date".
  5. Always have time to spare in your daily plan. Project buffer is essential.
  6. Say no repeatedly. Never allow people to simply dump things on your desk (this is hard. It took me 1½ year to get my collages to accept and to understand how important it was to the overall productivity).
  7. Eliminate distractions. Close your email program, turn off your phone, listen to music - not radio, close the door to your office etc.
  8. Feel balanced. Get enough to eat, drink, and sleep before you work. Take breaks when necessary.
  9. Never give out deadlines that you not sure about (high stress factor).
  10. Do you best, and if you still feel you are not doing enough - you need to go see a shrink (I really mean this).

You need to focus not only on the number of things you work on, but also on your mental workload - how many things you mind has to cope with. You are still multitasking if are constantly reminded of future things in your head.

Single-tasking is undoubtedly a key element to getting a better life, and to become more productive. Delete your calendar and to-do list and give yourself a fresh start (I did).

Many people feel they must multitask because everybody else is multitasking, but this is partly because they are all interrupting each other so much

- Marilyn vos Savant - Columnist and author

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.


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