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Multitasking vs monotasking: Why multitasking doesn’t work

When speed, efficiency and performance count, monotasking wins every time, because multitasking doesn’t work

With busy lives, long working hours and multiple distractions it’s easy to see why trying to get more done by multitasking is appealing.

There’s just one problem. Multitasking doesn’t work, effectively reducing productivity by up to 40%.

We multitask because we think we can, because we believe we are good at it and because we think it saves us time and energy. It’s a pity because for 98% of us this isn’t true. The 2% of super taskers are the only ones endowed with the true cognitive ability to efficiently multitask and until science works out a way to help the rest of us overcome this we will have to manage using our existing cerebral model.

Can you train yourself to do better? No, it’s the one brain function that get’s worse with practice.

Multitasking or task switching doesn’t work because it requires the brain to operate in a way that it wasn’t designed to. The cognitive cost includes increased fuel requirements (oxygen and glucose) for the job leading to rapid mental exhaustion, reduced time efficiency, more mistakes, reduced creativity, poorer analysis of data and poorer decision-making.

Research studies have shown how chronic serial media multitaskers can fragment their attention to such a degree they reduce their ability to switch effectively to working well even on single tasks.

Gloria Mark from the University of California Irvine believes our social conditioning to keep reengaging with our digital technology is contributing to our shrinking attention span and greater tendency to self interrupt with our thoughts.

Resisting the siren’s allure of automatically responding to text messages, voice or email begins with greater self-awareness and the conscious decision to more towards monotasking and a more productive work culture.

This could include,

  1. Technology-free meetings
  2. Establish a meetings policy where all mobile phones and other technology (unless specifically required) are not brought into the room.

  3. Following best brain design
  4. Encourage the work practice of allocating chunks of focused uninterrupted time of 60–90 minutes, interspersed with twenty-minute brain breaks.

    The magic lies in the break that provides the brain the time required to reboot and refresh; enjoying a little mind-wander to reveal an insight to a problem or taking a short walk to clear the mind, reduce stress levels and enhance our feel good hormones.

  5. Keeping technology out of sight in conversations.
  6. Switch off technology (or turning to silent) during face-to-face conversations and keeping it off the table. It’s been shown that the visible presence of a mobile phone is sufficient to reduce attention and cognitive ability even when it’s not being used.

    Maintaining attention and the ability to think deeply about things is an essential quality for effective leadership.

  7. Finding the reward.
  8. Reward monotasking by prioritising the three 3 most important items on your daily schedule, working sequentially through each in turn, with the mobile switched to silent, a “Do not disturb” sign or gatekeeper.

    Not only does this boost productivity, the reward of getting through those items early in the day is highly motivating to do more good work.

Working with the brain in mind elevates productivity, efficiency and performance. It’s time to ditch multitasking and choose to monotask instead.

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