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If there’s one buzzword that defines the modern white collar environment, it’s productivity. We’re always looking for ways to minmax (i.e. minimize inefficiency and maximize efficiency), the hope being that we’ll get more done in less time for less effort.
Multitasking is one of the most common methods for this, and the ability to multitask well is often lauded as a desirable trait to have. But as it turns out, multitasking is not necessarily the silver bullet for productivity that many think it to be.
If you truly want to minmax your productivity levels, then we urge you to keep reading. It’s not enough just to multitask; you have to know when to multitask. Otherwise, you may actually be shooting yourself in the foot!
Why Multitasking Is Revered
The heart of multitasking is overlap. You have so many things to do in a given day, yet you only have so much time to get it done. Every minute that ticks by is a lost opportunity. If taken one by one, your tasks might take up the majority of your day!
So the obvious answer is to overlap multiple tasks at once, which frees up time that would’ve otherwise been lost. It’s the same thought process behind the design of multi-core processors: if you can do two, four, or eight things at once, it’s simply faster and more efficient.
But that’s just surface-level stuff. When applied properly, multitasking can actually enhance your productivity by boosting your motivation, willpower, and even your creativity.
For example, the concept of temptation bundling is a useful practice when there are tasks you need to get done but you simply don’t care enough to do them, ultimately leading to big bouts of procrastination.
In short, temptation bundling is the practice of only allowing yourself to do an activity you enjoy when you couple it with an activity you need to do, but don’t necessarily enjoy. The term was coined and refined by the behavioral economist Katherine Milkman, but the idea has been around for ages.
“What if you only let yourself get a pedicure while catching up on overdue emails for work?
Or what if you only let yourself listen to your favorite CDs while catching up on household chores?
Or only let yourself go to your very favorite restaurant whose hamburgers you crave while spending time with a difficult relative who you should see more of?
Those would all be examples of temptation bundling.”
If you want to know about this technique, we highly recommend reading the transcript for the Freakonomics podcast episode where Milkman lays it all out, including results from her own research into the phenomenon:
“I see temptation bundling as a new type of commitment device with some distinct features from standard commitment devices. So a standard commitment device typically provides some consequence if you fail to engage in the intended behavior.
What we’re doing here is basically combining two commitments with each other and they sort of fit like puzzle pieces. So you’re using something that’s instantly gratifying to create a pull to provide the motivation you need to do something that’s unpleasurable at the moment of engagement.”
And then there’s the concept of multitasking while walking, which has been shown to improve creativity and motivation, not to mention the numerous health benefits that come from not sitting at your desk all day:
“What is it about walking, in particular, that makes it so amenable to thinking and writing? The answer begins with changes to our chemistry.
When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention.
Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.”
If we apply the above statements (which are from this article in The New Yorker) then it becomes clear: whenever possible, walking while you work can improve your productivity. Of course, the more mental your work, the easier this will be.
When Multitasking Backfires
You may have noticed a trend or pattern in the various examples offered in the discussion above: multitasking is only beneficial when one of the tasks is cognitive. Trying to juggle multiple cognitive tasks is when things break down.
Consider this study on multitaskers:
“The present study investigated the conditions under which multitasking impairs reading comprehension. Participants read prose passages (the primary task), some of which required them to perform a secondary task.
Performance on the reading comprehension test was lower in the cognitive load conditions relative to the no-load condition.”
In other words, for every additional cognitive task you attempt to juggle, your performance in each task will deteriorate. This can manifest in many ways, but the two most common are reduced efficiency (tasks take longer to complete) and increased failure rate (tasks are completed incorrectly).
This is why multitasking is actually a bad thing for most white collar professionals.
“[Multitasking] not only lowers productivity by 40 percent but it also shrinks our brains. When you overload your brain trying to get it to task switch, you shrink the grey matter in your brain.
Singletasking is working with our brains the way they were created. It means keeping your brain and body in the same place and focused on one thing at a time.
You can get more done in the course of the day if at any given moment you’re fully and intensely immersed in the task at hand.”
The solution to multitasking is, unsurprisingly, singletasking. You focus 100% of your attention on a single cognitive task and pour your energy into it from start to finish. Instead of splitting up your limited mental resources, you concentrate on one thing at a time.
In fact, your brain will thank you in the long run:
“Multitasking is a brain drain that exhausts the mind, zaps cognitive resources and, if left unchecked, condemns us to early mental decline and decreased sharpness. Chronic multitaskers also have increased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which can damage the memory region of the brain.”
But don’t stop there. You can get an additional boost of productivity by singletasking your devices as well.
One last thing to note: many people confuse multitasking and serial tasking thinking that they are the same thing, but they’re not. Serial tasking is a kind of hybrid between multitasking and singletasking, which brings us to our final point…
Which Side Is the Real Winner?
Both singletasking and multitasking are good; the challenge is knowing when to use which one. But after all that’s been said above, we hope that the challenge is now trivial.
Long story short, multitasking is best when you can combine a cognitive task (like reading, programming, writing, etc.) with a non-cognitive task (like walking, running, or in some cases, driving). When done in this way, multitasking remains efficient.
When juggling more than one cognitive task, singletasking is by far the better approach. However, for longer tasks — when attention is harder to maintain — sometimes it’s better to take an alternative approach.
Serial tasking is when you switch off between multiple tasks every 30-60 minutes, but giving 100% of your attention to the given task whenever you make a switch. It’s a comfortable middle-ground between the two extremes.
You may notice that this method has some similarities with the Pomodoro technique of time management. Serial tasking leverages the principles behind time-boxing in a way that improves mental agility and helps curb tendencies to procrastinate:
“The method is based on the idea that time-management tools and techniques should be simple; that frequent breaks can improve mental agility; and that changing the way people think about time can ease anxiety, freeing them to concentrate better.”
At the very least, it’s helpful for those who struggle with short attention spans. (Unfortunately, that means most of us these days.)
Here’s the bottom line: Use whatever keeps you productive. If you can make multitasking work, do it. If it bogs you down, shuffle your tasks around so you can singletask or even serial task. Just know that certain activities are better suited for one or the others.
Which one works best for you? Are you a seasoned multitasker or would you rather focus on one thing at a time? Share your experiences with us in the comments below!
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