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4 useful strategies to resist the siren song of multitasking

These tips go beyond the basics of silencing notifications and keeping set hours.

4 useful strategies to resist the siren song of multitasking
[Source images: tayaferdinand/iStock; Craig Dennis/Pexels]
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If you worked from home during the past year, you probably found that the pros and cons occupy two sides of the same coin. One of the biggest upsides of remote work is you can create a focused, distraction-free environment. A downside is you and solely you are responsible for creating that focused environment.

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For many, stay-at-home orders also introduced unique professional challenges: homeschooling children, sharing workspace with family members, and even soothing needy pets. But as widespread vaccination enables us to imagine a post-coronavirus world, companies are reconsidering how and where employees will work.

A 2020 Gartner survey found that 74% of CFOs will permanently shift some staff to remote work. Relatedly, another survey from Harvard Business School suggests that at least 16% of U.S. employees will work from home at least two days per week after the pandemic. It seems the home office is here to stay; we need long-term strategies to remain focused and productive.

By now, you know the basics: turn off device notifications. Set and keep standard hours. Take regular breaks, preferably away from screens. These are table stakes for remote work. As someone who launched a company from my tiny New York apartment, there are four key tactics I revisited during the pandemic and will continue to use when we reopen our offices.

Before we get to the details, it’s worth exploring why psychiatrists and neuroscientists rail against multitasking. What is its allure? Research shows that rapidly switching between unrelated tasks can cut your productivity by as much as 40%. Another study found that workers distracted by email and phone calls temporarily lost 10 IQ points, which is the same as one sleepless night, and more than twice the cognitive impact of smoking marijuana. Most importantly, multitasking can be incredibly stressful. Repeatedly switching focus creates anxiety and raises cortisol levels.

Even when you know that multitasking turns your brain into a spastic chipmunk, it’s tough to resist. A 2014 study found that 99% of adults use two forms of media simultaneously at least once a week. The average is over two hours a day. So why do we do it? Multitasking makes us feel like we’re squeezing more from our time. And scrolling social media, checking email, or even rummaging in the fridge can be alluring during difficult tasks. If you’re feeling frazzled from frequent interruptions, here are some strategies to consider.

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Harness your impatience

Every digital ping and fleeting distraction offers a hit of pleasure, and arguably, digital media has heightened our need for instant gratification. We should put that impatience to work, says author and leadership expert Peter Bregman. “Create unrealistically short deadlines,” writes Bregman for Harvard Business Review. “Cut all your meetings in half. Give yourself a third of the time you think you need to accomplish something.” I find this approach pairs well with the Pomodoro Technique. Set a timer for 25 minutes and give one task all you’ve got.

Fill a blank page (or two, or three)

Beginning the day with stream-of-consciousness writing has been a game changer for my business. Every morning, I open a blank page, start writing, and I don’t stop until I’ve filled three pages or 30 minutes have elapsed; no editing or deleting allowed. The first few paragraphs tend to be complaints and random thoughts, but after a few minutes, I’m usually exploring something worthwhile. Maybe it’s a product idea or a process we could streamline.

When I’m done, I copy and save anything useful, then delete the document. This daily practice sweeps away mental clutter and kicks off a productive workday. It’s like yoga for the mind. If you freeze in front of a blank screen, try answering one of these questions: What am I noticing? What would success look like today? What am I avoiding?

Quiet before you get irrevocably sidetracked

Even when you have the best intentions, intrusive sounds, thoughts, memories, and visual stimuli can throw you off track. As soon as your thoughts begin to stray, try the ABC method. According to Paul Hammerness and Margaret Moore, authors of Organize Your Life, Organize Your Mind: Train Your Brain to Get More Done in Less, this technique can hit the brakes on your runaway brain. “Become Aware of your options: You can stop what you are doing and address the distraction, or you can let it go,” write Hammerness and Moore. “Breathe deeply and consider your options. Then Choose thoughtfully: Stop? Or go?”

Remember you’re not a robot

Focused work activates the brain’s direct attention network. Distractions, in any form, switch you back into the default mode network, which analyzes the past, considers the future, and reflects on yourself and others. Productivity advice usually emphasizes digital temptations, but emotions often trigger our mental detours. For example, feeling frustrated or overwhelmed by a tough assignment might lead you to shop for sweatpants.

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When you notice your mind wandering, stop for a second. Acknowledge and label the dominant feeling with a word, like “anxious” or “bored” or even “excited.” Take a moment to accept the emotion, without judgment, then set it aside and return to your task. Repeat as necessary. This mindfulness technique is often used in meditation, which is another effective way to deepen focus, whether you’re commuting from the kitchen or back in the hum of a busy office.


Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.