You’ve likely heard by now that multitasking is bad for your productivity. Experts say that when you try to multitask, individual tasks usually take longer, and you don’t execute them as well. According to productivity consultant Julie Morgenstern, stripping multitasking from your work routine would help you “gain back 30% to 40% of your actual time and mental clarity per day.”
But attempting to multitask—or even wading through your email inbox for hours, which you may be doing while multitasking—can be a difficult habit to shake. In fact, the root problem may be something else altogether, and multitasking is just a symptom. Below are three reasons you could be losing hours of your workday, be it to multitasking or distractions like social media.
You don’t have a roadmap
“We live and work in a distraction-filled environment,” Morgenstern says. “And one of the ways to combat that is to have a roadmap for your day.”
A big reason why workers lose focus is because they don’t have a plan to begin with, which can help steel them against distractions (or “nibblers,” as Morgenstern calls them). “There’s nobody in the workplace, other than a customer service representative, whose job it is to react,” she says. “Everyone else has a backlog of to-dos—what I call big legato tasks and staccato tasks.” Morgenstern recommends planning for your workday the night before (at minimum), which also allows you to foresee where your day might get derailed. If you know a task may take longer than you have allocated or a meeting may go late, creating a roadmap can help you anticipate those potential speedbumps—and time sucks—in your day.
Let’s say you do map out every workday, but that you wait until the morning to do it. “It’s too late,” Morgenstern says. “The day is already crashing down on you.” She adds that when you plan ahead, you can schedule legato tasks—those that takes a bigger chunk of time—as your first order of business in the morning.
“That fuels you with an enormous infusion of a sense of accomplishment, control, and energy,” she says. “That actually makes you more efficient in everything else you do the rest of the day.”
You’re striving for perfection
Creating a roadmap for your workdays also helps protect against crippling perfectionism and procrastination, which Morgenstern says are interrelated. Perfectionists tend to indulge in black-and-white thinking, she says, which leads them to believe their work is terrible if it doesn’t meet their inordinately high standards. “It’s paralyzing,” she says. “You’ve set yourself up to such high standards that you put it off. Perfectionists tend to procrastinate, and most procrastinators are perfectionists.” In other words, you may spend hours on a task that doesn’t merit the time investment.
Morgenstern’s technique for battling perfectionism is to determine three “levels of performance” for any given task. That means figuring out the minimum you could do, the moderate level of execution, and the maximum one. Morgenstern says you should write down that criteria—say, when you’re compiling your work plan the night prior. “When you define those three levels for any task, you get away from the all-or-nothing thinking,” she says. “You discover there are options.”
Once her clients start doing this, they often look back at their definitions of the “maximum” level of performance and find it untenable. “Perfectionism is a mindless approach to work,” Morgenstern says.
You aren’t taking time to unfocus
Ask author and productivity expert Chris Bailey why you’re spending too much time on certain aspects of your job, and he’ll probably argue that, in part, it’s a symptom of not having enough work. Bailey adds that you should take stock of how much time you spend doing busy work, and evaluate how much of your job entails that type of work. “The more busy work we do, the more our work is expanding to fit how much time we have available to us,” he says.
He also believes people need time to not be busy, so they can let their minds wander and ideate. Maintaining focus is imperative, as he points out, but letting yourself unfocus can actually help with focus. “We actually think about our goals and our future 14 times as often when our mind is wandering versus when we’re focused on something,” he says. “If you’re looking at the same email for the fifth time, that’s a cue that you need to take a step back.” When you unfocus, you should try to do something you love—and that doesn’t mean refreshing your social media app of choice.
Of course, few tips can supplant the productivity you derive from pursuing work that you love. As Bailey says, “The best productivity hack is finding a job that you give a shit about.”