In today's fast-paced world we’re constantly inundated with information. All of it seems to constantly demand our attention. How often does any single task really have your full attention? Most of us rarely are able to truly focus. Instead, we'll find ourselves attending meetings in person while chatting on Slack and responding to the dings of texts, emails and social media messages.
How multitasking hurts
Multitasking has become a hallmark of the busy and in-demand professional. The problem is, researchers have learned that multitasking hurts more than it helps. The more that you divide your attention through multitasking, the more your productivity will decrease.
Are you a multitasker?
In a study, self-described multitaskers were asked to switch back and forth between tasks at a pace that they felt natural. A control group was asked to do one job at a time in sequence. The multitasking group performed far less effectively. Each time they switched tasks, there was a slowdown because of the time spent recalling the details, rules and the steps they'd executed so far. This wound up making everything take roughly 40% longer and led to lower levels of accuracy overall. People who focused on one task at a time spent less time and effectively finished all the tasks.
Like to lower your stress?
Multitasking is just as bad for your stress levels and mental health as it is for your productivity. In a different study performed at the University of California Irvine, researchers measured study participants' heart rates when they were both constantly able to check new email messages and when email access was blocked during working periods. Those constantly able to check email had consistently higher heart rates. Additionally, the researchers said that the mistakes and lower productivity associated with multitasking caused stress and anxiety. It can be a vicious circle — increased stress and anxiety further impacts performance.
How to choose mindfulness in the workplace
Our minds function optimally when they can focus on one activity at a time. Choosing mindfulness over multitasking will result in better feelings overall throughout each day, and lead to you doing better work. In simple terms, mindfulness can be thought of as being conscious and aware. It really is about being present in the moment, or focusing your attention on what's at hand. There are many advantages to mindfulness in the workplace. The trick is creating boundaries and habits that allow you to give each task your full attention.
Take a proactive approach, and create a prioritized plan of the items that must get done each day. This will allow you to make real progress on a few things that are important instead of being reactive. Every item that goes on your to-do list each day should be discrete, clear and actionable. Focus on three to five tasks per day.
First, make rules about when you will check email. When you allow new messages to continually interrupt you, you need to reorient yourself every time you return to your original task. Instead of allowing email to be a constant drag away from what you need to do, only look at your inbox once or twice a day for a limited amount of time. If you think that others may wonder why they are waiting a few hours for replies instead of a few minutes, add a note to your email signature telling people when you check each day. This creates a more reasonable expectation.
In meetings, create and stick to agendas to maximize effectiveness and make the most of everyone's time. Encourage everyone to give their full attention to the meeting instead of looking at chats or texts. This closer attention will allow everyone to contribute more fully and reduce the amount of time actually required to be effective.
The benefits of the mindfulness approach
Choosing to focus on one task at a time allows you to glide through your day more easily. You will find that tasks, when given full attention, will take as little as half the time that they do with the multitasking approach. Additionally, extra time can be deliberately put into each job to improve quality. When we multitask, we often rush and are not able to deliver the high quality that we would want to.
This laser focus will allow you to feel lower stress, as well. Instead of the constant high alert, you will be in a relaxed mood that allows for better emotional and mental health.
Give it a try
Once we adopt a mindful approach, we can take the time to ensure that we get what we want out of each workday and that we are putting in what we need to succeed. Try the switch to mindful habits to see how your working experience improves.
Main photo by Tim Goedhart on Unsplash