Can You Multitask?

by Jacqueline Ratzing, MHR

4 min read

I thought I was great at multitasking, or dealing with more than one task at the same time. Do you think you are great at multitasking? You start your day off with a list and are short on time so you multitask on projects. Or you work on a project and answer e-mails at the same time. I used to think I was a great multitasker. Do you know that question, “what would you consider one of your biggest strengths?” My answer was always multitasking. Technology allows me to do more tasks at the same time and from anywhere. But this is not the case at all; most people are terrible at multitasking. Our brains are not wired to focus on more than one task at a time. In an interview with NPR’s Morning Edition, neuroscientist Earl Miller said “for the most part, we simply can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. What we can do is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed.”

This made me think, am really a great multitasker? When I started to look at my day and pull apart how I work and my multitasking abilities, I realized I am terrible at this. “Switching from task to task,” Miller says, “you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not.” So, I decided to put this to a test. One day, while working on two different projects at once, I realized it was taking me longer than if I just set aside time for each project and focused on one at a time. When trying to focus on two different projects at once, I was having to re-do work, losing my thought process, and sometimes thinking I was done with one project but realizing I forgot a critical element. This helped me re-evaluate my working habits. Here are five tips I learned to become more efficient, and forget about multitasking altogether.

Make a list of tasks and don’t be afraid to say no

Take five minutes in the morning to look at what you need to accomplish for the day and prioritize your tasks. This allows you to know exactly what you need to accomplish and how much time you have for smaller or unexpected tasks. It also lets you manage your time. When a colleague needs help, you can now confidently tell them, “I cannot complete that by the end of the day, but I can have it to you tomorrow by noon.” It helps you establish deadlines and set expectations with your team.

Focus on one task at a time

If you have five projects you need to work on, block off time for each project and focus on doing one thing at a time. Use the list you created to prioritize what needs to be done first. Do not move on from one project to the next until your first project is complete.

Put down the technology/distractions

Technology is a huge asset; it allows us to work any and everywhere. When focusing on a project, close your email. (I am very guilty of not doing this, I see the inbox number go up and I immediately feel the need to check it.) Turn off your phone (or put it on silent), put away the tablets, turn off notifications, close your door if needed, and put away anything that can distract you.

Set up time to check your email

Email is one of my biggest struggles when trying to focus. I like to keep my inbox low and get back to people quickly. Blocking out time to work on emails has been a huge help to me. I deal with my inbox first thing when I start my work day, after lunch and right before the end of the day. Having time dedicated only to email helps me not feel like I need to drop everything and answer right away.

Be present

This is hard. We all have tasks we need to complete and it feels like there’s never enough time. But be present with what you are working on and be present when working with others. This means not sitting in a meeting check emails or doing other tasks. Have you ever been on a conference call and were asked to repeat a question you asked? You know the other person’s attention was elsewhere and they were not focusing on the call.

In the long run, taking the time to slow down can help you speed up your deadlines and allow you to put out the best product or service. If you still think you are the exception and can multitask like a pro, Miller makes a great point: “think about writing an e-mail and talking on the phone at the same time. Those things are nearly impossible to do at the same time; you cannot focus on one while doing the other. That’s because of what’s called interference between the two tasks.” Give it a try. I think you will be surprised at how quickly you find that your multitasking skills are not what you thought they were.

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