Multitasking And Task-Switching Are Sabotaging Your Productivity

Learn how multitasking, especially digital multitasking, damages brain function, negatively affects memory, and makes you less productive.

Remote worker multitasking

Let’s talk about multitasking.

Multitasking is doing two or more tasks at the same time with the intention to complete tasks more quickly, get more done, and increase productivity.

Freelancers and entrepreneurs are notorious multitaskers, as they have never-ending to-lists, far too many responsibilities, and pressure to be “on” and available nearly all of the time. Digital collaboration and communication tools have put the same pressure on remote workers, who feel like they have to keep email and Slack open all day while working.

Harvard Business Review shares that multitasking isn’t always successful

Doing two things well at the same time is possible only when at least one task is automatic. So, yes, you can walk and chew gum simultaneously and you can work and breathe at the same time successfully. But check email while participating in a conference call or respond to a Slack message while writing on a deadline?

Nope. That’s not going to work. One of those things will suffer.

I know, I know, you’re different. You’re one of the few that can actually multitask. I thought the same thing. But we’re both wrong.

According to Dr. Susan Weinschenk, the term multitasking is actually a misnomer. People can’t do more than one task at a time. Instead, we switch back and forth between tasks, often very quickly. Task switching, also called context switching, is expensive because it requires your brain to change focus and shift goals, and operate with a new context and new rules.

Multitasking Does Damage

Professor Sophie Leroy defines the cost of multitasking as attention residue. She shares that when switching from one task to the next, it takes time for our attention to catch up and pieces of ideas and lingering thoughts remain even after we’ve crossed an item off our to-do list. This is most likely why multitasking reduces productivity by 40%! Each time you switch tasks, it means going back and reacquainting yourself with the task status. Switching between tasks means spending valuable time revisiting past efforts and work.

Several studies have also found that multitasking, especially digital multitasking, has adverse effects on your brain, memory, and anxiety, which makes you less productive and more stressed:

When you’re a freelancer, business owner, or entrepreneur, however, you have to get things done and when overwhelmed with too many to-dos, multitasking feels like a good option.

Multitasking makes you feel like you’re getting a lot done and making progress toward your goals. That busy feeling feels great in the moment — you may even pat yourself on the back for being such a great multitasker because again, you’re different.

The problem is that after a long stretch of work, you feel anxious, worried, stressed, and cranky, and the work completed isn’t your best work. Researchers at Stanford University found that when focus is stretched across a large number of tasks, all tasks suffer in quality. When you multitask, brainpower suffers and you become less equipped to solve a problem, complete a project, and communicate clearly with a client.

Stop Multitasking, Do One Thing

If you’ve read this, thinking, “I don’t care what studies show, I have too much to do to stop multitasking,” I’ve got good news.

That same Stanford University study discovered that removing distractions and performing activities that require concentration and completing tasks with a singular focus will not only fix the damage that multitasking has done to your brain but also help you get even more done.

Just say no to multitasking.

If you can do that, you can turn unproductive busyness into focused productivity and actually get more work and better work done in less time, which is one of the things I walk you through step-by-step in my Proactive Productivity Mini Course.

Here are a few quick tips to help you stop multitasking:

  • Define Your Workspace:
    It doesn’t matter where you work — an office with a door that closes, a desk tucked in the nook of your living room, or the dining room table. What matters is that you have a specific, defined space that is your workspace. When you have a consistent workspace, your brain is more easily able to get into “work mode” when you sit down at your desk.
  • Don’t Work In Bed:
    Never work in your spaces for relaxing, especially your bed. Do not bring work tasks and stress into the spaces you spend your non-working hours or it will be harder to detach from work and truly rest, relax, and recharge.
  • Remove Distractions:
    Close email, close Slack, close social media, turn off notifications, put on those noise-canceling headphones, set your phone to silent, and close your office door. Also, ditch that second screen. Tasks that take 30 minutes to complete magically take 60-minutes to complete when you’re watching a TV show or movie at the same time.
  • Prioritize Tasks:
    Everything doesn’t have to get done today or even this week. Evaluate your to-do list and the deadlines associated with each item. Some will be more urgent than others, so prioritize those tasks with the nearest deadlines.
  • Do One Thing At A Time:
    Don’t keep email open, don’t browse social while in a meeting, don’t try to do two things at once. Do one thing at a time with a break in between, or practice time batching, where you group similar tasks together in one focused block of work — like making all of the design revisions for open projects one after another, in the same afternoon.
  • Do The Big Thing First:
    Get the biggest, hardest thing on your to-do list done first. You’ll feel super productive and everything else the rest of the day will feel easier.
  • Take Breaks:
    The world doesn’t run at maximum effort 100% of the time and neither should you. Don’t work during a break and justify it by claiming it’s different work. Downtime away from your office, computer, and work tasks, is critical for productivity, creativity, energy levels, happiness, problem-solving capabilities, and mental health.
  • Be Present In Meetings:
    It’s tempting when sitting in a virtual meeting to scroll through your Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter feeds, respond to a Slack message, or check email really quickly but don’t do it. Resist! Everyone else in the meeting, especially if it’s only one person, can see your eyes dart to the side or your head tilting down, and it sends the message that they’re not important enough to you to get your undivided attention.

Leave Busyness And Multitasking Behind

Researchers from the Harvard Business Review found that the rise in mental health disorders like anxiety and depression may be caused by a rise in unrealistic standards for professional work. To live happy healthy lives and grow sustainable businesses, freelancers need to leave busyness behind and reject the unhealthy pressure and ridiculous expectations set by the entrepreneurial hustle culture.

Busyness is not a badge of honor or something to brag about. Working yourself to death isn’t something to be proud of. Anyone can be busy, few are actually productive.

Instead, it’s important to:

  • Set realistic expectations of what you can accomplish in a day, create a doable to-do list, implement productivity strategies that enable you to focus on one thing at a time, and take breaks to refuel your creativity.
  • Embrace imperfection and learn to recognize when good is good enough and when your high standards are pushing you to work harder and do more than your client is paying you for.
  • Give yourself grace when you don’t get everything done. Rather than pushing through until every last to-do list checked off, give yourself permission to take a break, walk away, and come back to it later.

Focusing on one thing at a time and removing distractions helps you find that all-important productivity groove that makes it easier to complete tasks and get more done in less time.

When you stop being busy and start being productive you earn back valuable hours and decrease stress. This is how others — in the same 24-hour day you have — have the time to read books, invest in learning new skills, spend meaningful time with family and friends, take amazing vacations, and pursue hobbies.