Multitasking. Is That Like Spotting Bigfoot?

Do you consider yourself to be a good multitasker? Do you beat yourself up because you can’t seem to do two things at once, no matter how hard you try?

Before you get frustrated or throw in the towel, you might want to rethink your definition of multitasking. Are the people you envy actually doing multiple tasks at the same time, or are they just switching back and forth between different tasks?

Read on to learn more about the difference between multitasking and switch-tasking. You’ll also find out how switch-tasking can be detrimental to your productivity and learn tips that will help you to stay focused and get more done at work and in other areas of your life.

The Truth About Multitasking

As the name suggests, the basic multitasking meaning is doing more than one task well at the same time. For example, someone might be able to answer emails while working on a report or text a client while having a conversation with their boss.

Lots of people think they’re multitasking. In reality, though, most of the world isn’t capable of doing this. 

Research from the University of Utah shows that only about 2 percent of people can multitask. They’re able to keep multiple balls in the air without dropping any of them, so to speak. As for the other 98 percent, trying to do two or more things at once results in diminished quality across the board.

Are They Actually Multitasking?

Women appearing to Multitask

It’s important to note, too, that even those who multitask well aren’t necessarily doing two or more things at the same time. What’s more likely is that they’re very good at switch-tasking, also known as moving back and forth between two or more tasks.

The members of the coveted 2 percent can go from answering an email to typing that report without having to stop and think about what they were trying to say. Or, maybe they can have a conversation with their boss, send a text, and then pick back up where they left off without missing a beat.

These people are not actually talking and texting or emailing and typing their reports at the same time. They’re just switching between these tasks more efficiently than most people can. 

What Happens When You Try to Multitask?

The ability to multitask well is so rare that it’s basically non-existent. It really is like spotting Bigfoot. This doesn’t stop people from trying to multitask, though.

You might think you’re being a better employee by doing your best to multitask (or, should we say, efficiently switch-task) at work. However, the opposite is likely true.

The following are some of the most common issues people run into when they get in the habit of constantly switch-tasking:

You Can’t Get Into “Flow” State

Getting into a “flow” state is a beautiful thing. In this state, you’ll find that you’re able to work efficiently and distraction-free. You’ll be able to solve problems and actually enjoy yourself in the process.

Can’t remember the last time you were in a flow state? It might be because you’re always trying to multitask (or, in reality, switch-tasking). When you jump from task to task throughout the day, you don’t give yourself enough to get into a flow state and stay there.

You Miss Out on Important Things

If you’re always switch-tasking, you actually are more likely to miss out on things that are important or noteworthy.

You’d be amazed at what you can miss because you’re so busy jumping back and forth between your phone, computer screen, etc. One study even found that a whopping 75 percent of students didn’t notice a clown riding by on a unicycle (you’d think you’d be able to spot something like that, right?) because they were busy walking and talking on their phones.

You Work More Slowly

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you’re being more efficient and getting more done by switch-tasking. The truth, though, is that it causes most people (remember, 98 percent of us can’t multitask) to actually work more slowly.

Research shows that it takes the average person about 25 minutes to return to a task after they’ve been distracted from it. Distractions include checking email, responding to Slack notifications, talking to coworkers, etc.

Think about how many distractions you encounter during the day because you’re constantly switch-tasking. Now, if it takes you 25 minutes to get back to work after being distracted, think about all the time you’re wasting. Yikes!

Your Memory and Brain Health Are Affected

Switch-tasking is bad for your memory, too.

According to a study from 2016, people who regularly multitask experienced weaknesses in both their working memory (this is their ability to store relevant information while they’re working on another task) and their long-term memory (this is their ability to store information and recall it after a longer period of time).

Your Stress Increases

Another study showed that frequent multitaskers experienced reductions in the grey matter of their brains. These are areas that are related to cognitive control, motivation, and emotional regulation.

If you’re constantly switch-tasking, you might find that you struggle to stay focused and engaged at work or in other areas of your life. You might have trouble managing your stress as well.

Speaking of stress, multi-tasking can also lead to an increased risk of chronic stress. A study of college students found that those who multitasked while working on the computer dealt with more stress than those who didn’t.

Tips for Better Efficiency and Productivity

Okay, you can see that forcing yourself to multitask is not the way if your goal is to get more done and improve your work quality. What should you do instead?

Here are some tips that can help you to be more efficient and productive during the workday:

Break Down Complicated Tasks

It’s normal to feel overwhelmed when met with a big project or difficult task. These feelings of overwhelm, in turn, might compel you to try and switch-task so that it seems as though you’re getting more done while you’re on the clock.

Instead of doing this, try breaking down a big project into smaller tasks. Work backward from the due date and divide the project up into more manageable chunks.

Cluster Tasks

Consider clustering tasks for the day, too. This can help you to knock out similar projects back to back, which reduces the need for switch-tasking.

For example, block off some time during the day to answer all your emails, texts, Slack messages, and other types of communication. That way, you won’t be thinking about them while you’re trying to take care of another project.

Turn Off Notifications

How do you resist the urge to check email or text messages while doing another task? Try turning off notifications once you’ve checked and responded to all your communications for the day.

When you turn off notifications, you’re less likely to get distracted. You’re also less likely to worry about messages that are coming in because you won’t know what’s happening. As a result, you’ll have an easier time getting into that precious flow state.

Set a Timer

Certain tasks, such as checking emails or responding to text messages, can be major time-sucks. When you’re tackling one of these tasks, set a timer for yourself.

Give yourself 30 minutes (or whatever amount of time makes sense for you) to deal with this particular task, then close the window and move on to the next thing. This will help you avoid spending too much time on one project, and it will allow you to get more done throughout the day.

Schedule Breaks

Make sure you’re scheduling breaks for yourself throughout the day, too.

You might find that you’re prone to switch-tasking when you’re starting to feel overwhelmed, tired, or burned out. For example, you might gravitate toward social media or other tasks that require less brainpower when you’ve been working too long without a rest.

Schedule breaks into your workday and take them. Go for a walk outside, stretch, get a snack, etc. This will help you to feel better and be more focused and productive when you get back to work.

Upgrade Your Furniture

Finally, consider upgrading your office furniture.

If you’re using high-quality ergonomic tools, you’ll be more comfortable while you work. This, in turn, can help you keep your head in the game, resist the urge to give into distractions, and get more done.

Examples of ergonomic office furniture include dual monitor arms, adjustable-height desks so you can choose between standing and sitting, and adjustable office chairs.

Good desk lighting can make a big difference, too. If you’re constantly squinting and straining your eyes during the workday, you’ll be more prone to headaches and feel more compelled to switch-task just to give your eyes a quick rest.

Get More Done Today

It’s time to give up the idea that multitasking is A) even possible and B) makes us more productive.

If you need help getting more done during the day, the trick isn’t to try and do multiple things at once. Keep the tips listed above in mind so you can truly maximize your productivity and efficiency.