Twenty thousand productivity articles under the sea all offer the same advice: Don’t multitask.
It’s ineffective, it wastes time, it puts bags under your eyes, it burns you out, and only a first-edition Charizard can truly slay it for good. “Multitasking is bad,” they said.
But what if keeping your eye on multiple tasks is literally your job? Call me a catastrophist, but I don’t love the idea of an air traffic controller only following one plane for four hours straight. My home airport is LAX; I don’t even want them developing tunnel vision for more than four seconds. Some careers inherently require multitasking, and the assertion that multitasking is a sin invalidates entire swaths of leadership and management acumen.
I’m usually a productivity fangirl; Cal Newport is my religion, and I love the idea of singular tasks. But the fantasy ends there. Locking myself in a room and annihilating my to-do list sounds like bliss, but as a business owner and human adult, that degree of freedom is unrealistic most days. Work and family responsibilities can make unitasking a challenge, so you need to stop jamming a square peg into a round hole, and take a different approach.
Successful professionals multitask, and demanding careers require juggling many different balls simultaneously by design. Instead of banishing the m-word altogether, consider a refresher on how multitasking actually works—and what you can start doing today to get better at it.
This is your brain on tasks
Before we get to actionable tactics, let’s first get aligned on the neuroscience behind multitasking. It’s been 20 years since the wildly popular article Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching turned us on to the idea that multitasking was bad. Your brain can only make one decision at a time; you’ve just gotten so good at hopping from one project to another over the years that it feels like multitasking.
Although your brain has limits, it’s a pusher. When presented with a challenging task, your brain will recruit energy away from other areas of the body to max out focus. This is why you sometimes find yourself disconnecting from nearby sights or sounds during periods of deep concentration.
Here’s where it gets tricky: Research has found that the people who multitask most often or try to do the most tasks simultaneously are often the least effective at it. Moreover, these chronic multitaskers overestimate how much work they can get done in a given period. It’s almost like a task-specific iteration of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the phenomenon in which the least skilled or knowledgeable people think they’re the best. When it comes to multitasking, practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.
Redefining focus in a hybrid work landscape
I hereby give you permission to multitask. But let’s also ensure the scythes you’re juggling actually result in projects moving forward. Here are a few tried-and-true adjustments that could make all the difference.
Group together tasks that are similar: This is . . . not news. But it’s good to remember that different types of tasks are processed by different parts of your brain, and it’s the toggling between different cranial departments that tires you out, not the tasks themselves. Clumping together tasks of a similar nature will lower the number of attention reroutes your brain has to endure in a given day.
Set up your focal point: My problem with the Eisenhower matrix is that it still requires a lot of thinking. What constitutes important versus not important, anyway? I need a more Neanderthal approach for doing shit.
Brian Tracy’s Focal Point still has my favorite prioritization prompt. It goes like this: “If one hour from now, you suddenly had to step away from your desk for a month . . . what one task would you take care of first?” This is task number one. Then magically give yourself another hour and determine task number two, number three, and so on. Prioritization burns calories, and not in a good way; set the sequence with as little willpower as possible to preserve attention.
Actually limit social media and other distractions like you keep saying you will: Real talk—if you have a hundred tasks on your plate at work each day . . . is being on Twitter for three hours every night to unwind actually decompressing you? It might be time to enable screen time limits, and keep your sanity in check. (Or delete it altogether. . . . I’m a writer who doesn’t have Twitter in case you’re tempted to give it the ax. Come over here to the dark side with me: It’s quiet, and the cocktails are excellent.)
Blanket productivity advice rarely works for everyone and in every circumstance. But we all want to achieve our goals and free up time to pursue happy healthy lives. Find the winning rhythm that serves you best, and your unshakeable routine will help you soar.
Nick Wolny is a former classically trained musician and a current online marketing strategist for small-business owners, experts, and entrepreneurs.