Anytime you’re hunkering down at work to wrap up projects on a tight deadline, chances are you’re in full-on multitasking mode. You may think it transforms you into a to-do-list-tackling machine, but it might be doing more harm than good.
"Multitasking is actually a myth," says Devora Zack, author of Singletasking: Get More Done—One Thing at a Time. "The brain is hardwired to only do one thing at a time."
So when you think you’re multitasking, you’re actually practicing something called "task switching," which means your brain is bouncing back and forth between activities. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance found that task switching eats up time and increases the likelihood that mistakes will be made.
What’s more, multitasking leads to stress, says Dave Crenshaw, keynote speaker and author of The Myth of Multitasking: How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing Done. This is exactly what you don’t need this time of year.
Luckily, there’s an alternative: the reverse of multitasking, called "monotasking" or "single-tasking." Here are five situations in which to try it out, and why it might be the answer to helping you survive a jam-packed schedule—without sacrificing time, energy, or quality.
When you’re busting through a to-do list to meet a cutoff time, trying to do multiple things at once—such as immediately answering emails while working on the project you owe your client in an hour—might make you less efficient and more error-prone, Zack says. That’s because as we’re jumping from one thing to the next, we can’t reach the state of immersion that fosters creative problem solving for the bigger task at hand.
The monotasking fix. Set up a distraction-free work zone and turn off annoying pop-ups and pings before they have a chance to interfere, Zack says. That goes for work screens of all kinds and any personal devices you have stashed at your desk.
Also consider blocking out your calendar to work on specific projects, Crenshaw suggests, so you’re motivated to stick to a schedule as much as possible until deadline. And rather than feeling like a slave to your inbox, set an alert to check email for 15 minutes at a time every few hours. He also suggests letting clients and coworkers know that you’ll respond to email at certain times of day (such as by noting it in your email signature), so they have an idea of when to expect a reply.
You may think of multitasking as something you only do in work situations, but chances are you also exhibit it in your personal life, where it can be equally detrimental. Simply put: Multitasking at work hurts your efficiency; multitasking on a human being can damage a relationship, Crenshaw says.
"There’s a temptation that you have to be available to all people at all times, and when you have that attitude, you’re never fully available to any one person ever," Zack says.
You may do it without realizing or intending to. Consider this all-too-common scenario: You’re out for drinks with a group of friends but texting another friend under the table. It seems harmless, but you’re sending the signal that the friends you’re with are not that important to you.
The monotasking fix. Put your phone away when you’re socializing or sitting down to dinner. If you must be available—say, in case your kids have an emergency—create a special ringtone that’ll help you ID when important calls are coming in.
If the temptation of checking your phone is an issue for everyone in the group, try Zack’s trick: Ask your friends to pile their phones on the table. The first one to touch his or her phone picks up the whole bill. It sounds harsh, but by paying attention to one another and truly spending time together, you’ll build higher-quality relationships, she says.
We’ve all been in those meetings when things need to be repeated because someone was replying to an email or doing some secret online shopping instead of paying attention. Not only does this draw out the meeting and waste everyone’s time, but those found guilty of multitasking may walk away confused about what was discussed, which could lead to future mistakes.
The monotasking fix. At the start of a meeting, announce that it’ll be device-free. (Or if you must share a digital doc or presentation, project it from one screen so that everyone views it together.) Ask everyone to put their laptops and phones on a table off to the side and set each person up with a note pad, pen, and agenda, if you haven’t emailed one ahead of time.
As a reward for trying the experiment, announce at the onset of the meeting that it will be cut short, from an hour to 30 minutes, for example. "You will be amazed that you can get as much done—if not more—in half the time," Zack says. "People are actually present in the conversation and not texting or checking out something online, and it builds relationships, too."
Maybe you can’t fathom the idea of going running without listening to your high-intensity interval training playlist on blast. That’s okay—that’s not really multitasking anyway, since the two tasks don’t require your full attention, Zack says. "But if you’re exercising and also trying to read a book or talk to a friend, typically that slows people down," she adds. "If someone is texting on the StairMaster, first of all, they’re not getting an effective workout, and second, it’s dangerous."
The monotasking fix. Be more mindful during your gym sessions and focus on exercising—and only exercising—not what the Real Housewives are up to on TV. You’ll be able to amp up your intensity so you can get an effective workout in less time, leaving you with plenty of time to veg out with a guilty-pleasure show or celeb magazine post-sweat.
If you feel guilty for taking a real lunch break, you first have to adjust your thinking and start feeling guilty if you don’t take one, Zack says. Working straight through lunch does you a disservice: A study published in the Academy of Management Journal found that not taking a lunch break at work made study participants more fatigued and less productive during the remainder of the day. By taking the time to truly relax or at least break away from your computer screen, you’ll come back feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the afternoon’s projects.
The monotasking fix. Schedule a nonnegotiable lunch break. And to really tap the benefits, consider eating your meal solo, the study’s researchers suggest. Socializing with coworkers may not give you the chance to truly unwind because spending an hour talking about work with others might put you even more on edge than had you eaten alone at your desk.
But if eating alone will rub your colleagues the wrong way, try spending half your lunch break with them and the other half on time for yourself, or head out of the office later in the afternoon for a quick walk around the block. Simply giving yourself 15 minutes to unplug or zone out can help you regain mental strength and boost your spirits and productivity for the rest of the day. "You get the benefit from relaxing, and then you get more done," Zack says.
A version of this article originally appeared on LearnVest. It is adapted and reprinted with permission.