Work Smart: Stop Multitasking and Start Doing One Thing Really Well

Work Smart

A human's ability to do several things at once is a wonder of biology: it means we can eat a burrito while we walk down the street and listen to music and daydream about the weekend all at the same time. But some kinds of multitasking costs you more time than you save.

Doing two things at once, like singing while you take a shower, is not the same as instant messaging while writing a research report. Don't fool yourself into thinking you can multitask jobs that need your full attention. You're not really having a conversation while you write; you're shifting your attention back and forth between the two activities quickly. You're juggling. When you juggle tasks, your work suffers AND takes longer—because switching tasks costs.

When your brain switches its attention from one task to another, it takes time to get into a new train of thought. You lose any momentum you had on the first task, which costs you on the next switch. On the internet or in an office where distractions abound, switching tasks can cost hours. A recent study showed that office employees who were interrupted while they worked took an average of 25 minutes to get back to what they started.

If you've got work that requires engaged thinking—like reading, writing, or even just a serious phone call, stop juggling and start single-tasking. For example, if you've got a dozen emails to answer and presentation slides to prepare, complete the slides before you look at the email. You’ll get both jobs done faster than the juggler who switches between the email and the slides every few minutes.

You already know that some kinds of multitasking can be hazardous to your health, like texting while driving or blow-drying your hair while you're in the bathtub. When it comes to splitting your attention between tasks, remember the difference between multitasking and juggling. When you have the choice, stop juggling and get things done faster—one at a time.

Gina Trapani is the author of Upgrade Your Life and founding editor of Lifehacker.com. Work Smart appears every week on FastCompany.com. Last week: Work Smart: Mastering Your Social Media Life.

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22 Comments

  • Belinda Parrish

    Gina -
    Thank you for stating this so clearly! I always thought that I would get more done if I multi-tasked, in reality, less got done and I would feel overwhelmed with all that I still needed to do!
    I am going to pass this on to the students I know that think they can "watch a movie", "text their friends", and "do their homework" all at the same time - then they complain that they are not getting good grades!
    Thanks again!

  • aimee borneo

    I see multitasking unproductive...stop multitasking and focus at one task at a time to increase your productivity...

  • dignan17

    Gina, I'm sure there are lots of great Fast Company videos, but PLEASE tell them to separate them into their own individual RSS feeds. I just added the RSS and was hit with a deluge of shows. I know they're all short, but I wanted just this show, and I consider it bad form to lump all the shows into a single repository. It's not very user friendly.

    Thanks and keep up the great work!

  • Meggin

    Gina,

    I'm of mixed opinions on this one. I see multi-tasking key to productivity.

    I do agree that a constant, non-directed shifting of focus away from a task at hand is counterproductive; however, being able to switch focus when a project is stagnant has been fundamental to my own and my team's productivity.

    It works for me to have a tough techie project for the mornings (with the freedom to push if I am in the zone), and the light, easier, more mechanical project for the late afternoons, especially Fridays.

    I also feel that working on different projects but with related topics is a great way to see patternization and the big picture across the horizon.

  • Daniel Emond

    Before, I was doing "multi-tasking" type of work. Now that I have accepted that I am human rather than a machine, I've stopped "Multi-tasking" which helped me raise in the org chart from application installer to division manager. VERY GOOD article!

  • UniversalGiving team

    Thanks, Gina, for such an interesting article on what we can and can't do with multitasking. I'm afraid I'm a pretty devoted multitasker myself, but I can still see the wisdom in what you're saying about doing too many complex tasks at once. I think the key is knowing what we can and can't multitask--and that may be different for different people. Some things are biological fact, but anecdotally it seems that different people can multitask to different degrees.

    Personally, when I was in school I usually had two pieces of paper on my desk--one was to take notes, one was to write my novel, and I'd simply switch back and forth between the two. And I kept up with both. Now, I like to do creative writing while I watch television. Somehow, that works out for me--but I also know that I can't read while I watch television. And I can't work on my novel while in meetings for my job. Different tasks do require different levels of engagement, and I think it's ultimately about knowing what things can and can't be balanced together, so that neither one suffers. Now I focus on my work during the day, and focus on my novel at night--which is also another kind of balance!

    Thanks for the wise words, Gina!

    Best,
    Cheryl

    Cheryl Mahoney
    cmahoney@universalgiving.org
    www.universalgiving.org

    UniversalGiving Blog:
    www.philanthropost.wordpress.c...

  • pamelahawley

    Gina, thank you so much for your important article... it really points to the fact of honoring one another and the importance of listening -- not only to people but also to the task at hand. If we don't, we sacrifice true attention, helpfulness and engagement. We can't really give our best.

    The principle of devotion and attention to a specific area also applies to larger areas of interest in your life. If you are focusing on playing piano, then you should be devoted to it and really give it your all to gain the most from practice and performance. It's not something you would multi-task with, but the point is that short or longterm, we should be concentrating our full attention.

    An interesting long-term area is balance. Here's where I do 'recommend a switch.' After being devoted to one activity, change. Have different points of interest in your life. If we are completely focused on only one thing, we can't really see as many different, creative ways to approach issues. We encourage our UniversalGiving team to have outside interests, activities, and to come back to UniversalGiving refreshed. We want to encourage people to be their 'whole' selves. That includes many different areas, not simply work. It might be family, being an improviser and actress, working on your writing, or taking an international volunteer trip to learn about and serve in a different country such as Bangladesh or Tanzania.

    So let's switch -- to be creative. Of course, after we have been devoted!

    Sincerely,
    Pamela Hawley
    Founder and CEO
    UniversalGiving

    phawley@universalgiving.org
    www.universalgiving.org

    Living and Giving blog
    www.pamelahawley.wordpress.com

  • Scott Morris

    I think another important distinction is hidden in this debate, that of "multitasking" as it's currently used versus "situational awareness", which may require that you pay attention to many sources of information simultaneously to get a larger picture. Pilots, machine operators, stock traders, CEO's and many others rely on multiple, simultaneous sources of information to give them a larger picture while really focusing on one task - navigating an instrument landing safely in bad weather, for instance.

    Certainly we wouldn't want to fly in an airplane where the pilot only watched one instrument, but we would similarly not want to fly in an airplane where the pilot was attending to other unrelated tasks (such as arguing over a spreadsheet while the airport is behind us).

    Where we draw the line between distracting and unproductive multitasking and necessary information gathering and situational awareness is quite subjective, but we should be aware of the distinction.

  • Paul King

    Great article thanks,

    I hate being interupted during a task, and having to shift my attention. This article is particularly interesting to me as I have started a time tracking software for freelancers with my brother. We want to improve users working habits so this could be something to look into further. Look forward to reading more of your articles. Paul, http://1daylater.com

  • Christine Maingard

    Gina, a great article that should be distributed to all executives and managers (and others) who revel in their multi-tasking madness and value this ability in others. This is despite that fact that in an average office environment, for instance, where people are not able to concentrate for certain chunks of time some 20-40% of productivity is lost. What's more, multi-tasking (and relentless 'serial-tasking') not only 'messes' with our brains, but it upsets our bodies too - it has the same effect as continuous and high-level stress, releasing stress-related hormones into our system. Not good news for psychological and physiological health and well-being.

    Dr Christine Maingard
    Author of "Think Less, Be More"
    http://www.thinklessbemore.com
    http://www.mindfulstrategies.c...

  • Scott Fillmer

    Maybe this is why Apple decided to not include any multitasking on the iPad, does this mean we can get more work done with the iPad than we can with our MBP's :)

  • Jack Poorman

    A great book The Perfect Pitch by John Steel, one of the founders of a great Ad Agency (Goodby Silverstein and Partners) notes that a study commissioned by HP found that frequent checking of email and texting while doing something else was the equivalent of smoking two joint of pot, or experiencing a sleepless night. Another study he mentions says that checking your Blackberry constantly temporarily knocks 10 points off your IQ! Hmmm.

  • Mark Von Der Linn

    I think the real problem is a misunderstanding of the definition. I used to see the requirement for "ability to multi-task" on job postings a lot. But I think what most hiring managers really mean by this is "ability to balance/juggle numerous projects and duties at once… keep them organized and on track" but not actually work on them simultaneously. I'd like to see a follow-up article to define what multi-tasking is and what it is NOT... educate managers to stop abusing this popular buzz word.

    Mark
    www.VDLconsulting.com

  • Claire Tompkins

    Would it be easier to avoid multitasking if you realize it's your brain's default mode and you have to work to inhibit it? According to MIT neuroscientists, multitasking is the natural way;
    it's just not the most effective way. So trying to learn to ignore distractions probably won't work. You need to get rid of them.

  • Greg Steggerda

    Good stuff from article and comments. I just want to point out the potential relational cost of attempting to multitask during interactive activities. Checking e-mail in meetings, continuing to work while someone talks to you, etc. may yield small productivity gains but may also require time later to repair damage to relationships or your personal brand.

  • Gregory Ferenstein

    @Todd, thanks for your comments. Did both of those tasks demand your full attention? Are there any tasks that always demand 100% of your focus?

    --
    @ferenstein

  • ron tomlin

    In 2001, Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck wrote "The attention Economy".
    gave me some good information on managing attention.
    and much more has been written about the price of multi-tasking yet a job search of simplyhired.com reveals 77,795 companies still value the myth of multi-tasking. The has to be an opportunity here

  • Chris Reich

    All good and valid Gina. I encourage people to EXIT Outlook when they have any task to do which requires deep thinking. I also use a rhythm map to help people plan their day. For example, if someone is sharper in the morning, that's the time to "schedule" the problem solving or design stuff like building that presentation or writing the proposal. Save the afternoon for data entry or answering email.

    It sounds corny but it works. You know how sometimes you really feel in a groove? Ideas are flowing and everything comes together. Find those times in your day and put the right tasks in those time slots and you'll not only get more done, you'll enjoy what you're doing.

    Chris Reich
    www.TeachU.com

  • Todd Singleton

    Some of us have actually built long careers and job security by multitasking complex tasks. Just this morning I completed the installation of a NetAPP filer head while being interrupted by technical support and administrative issues surrounding a corporate relocation. Not one thing went unresolved or put on hold. It is possible and it does make the people who can do it more valuable.

    Funny that I call upon my staff to multitask on complex issues frequently and they rarely let me down. Yet you say it ain't so. That's why many of them got raises in this economy. They're worth it.