One of my favorite questions to ask people when I speak about multitasking is this: “Have you ever come home exhausted at the end of the day, with no idea what you actually accomplished?” The typical response is a resounding “yes.” Perhaps you’ve had that experience too. Often, this occurs because we weren’t focused enough and spent the day interrupting one task for the next every time a new issue came to us. The side-effects that seem to accompany these days are drained energy, lower satisfaction, and increased stress. In our society, it is easy to slip into the lure of busyness. Has anyone ever come into your office and asked, “Did you get that email I just sent you?” The expectation is that we have to be on top of everything all the time. But in reality, this notion and expectation of multi-tasking is a high-achiever’s nemesis.
Researchers are clear that shifting our attention back and forth among multiple tasks costs us significant amounts of time in our day. If you’re wondering where all the time in your day went, perhaps it’s time to assess how much you are juggling (in your attention) at once. Some research suggests that the lag time it takes our brains to refocus on a task after a distraction can be as much as 18 minutes. Unbelievable. No wonder multitasking is said to reduce productivity by 40%. That’s one day of your work week you could reclaim! Try counting how many distractions you get in just one hour of your day. It is sobering.
When multitasking, our attention is spread thin. That means that we aren’t very focused on any one thing. This is why your phone conversation ends up in the email you are typing when doing both at the same time. Somehow, when the complexity of the task goes up or stakes are high, we instinctively know to limit distractors. When you were first learning to drive, did you have the radio cranked up loud? When we try to do more in less time, we end up doing a lot of mediocre work. To this point, Albert Einstein said, “Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.” Where is the quality of your work being slighted because you’re not focused?
Trying to juggle several balls at once is stressful. Literally. I know, I’ve done it. As an athlete, I took up juggling as a way to train my concentration for longer periods of time. I had to really focus on what I was doing. When I got distracted by something I saw, heard or even thought, I was more likely to mess up. While focusing on one thing takes effort, it is much more stressful to run around putting out fires all day. Furthermore, after we’ve been multitasking, our elevated stress levels take time to subside – assuming you aren’t busy thinking of all the things you still need to get done. Chronic stress is a leading cause of doctor’s visits, according to an article I read recently. I believe it.
Multitasking interferes with more than performance in sports or at work. My wife and I had a discussion a few months ago that my checking of social media at times when she wanted to connect was getting in the way of our quality time. Big surprise, right? For me, this was shortly after getting home and also as we wound down our evening. I recently heard Chris Brogan on a podcast talk about eliminating devices at 9:00PM. Brilliant! How often do you see supposed couples on a dinner date in which one or both of them are texting or playing games on a phone? Apparently, they don’t find their dates so interesting. Maybe these couples should just ask for the check and move on.
Hopefully, you’re convinced that multitasking is more foe than friend. It is holding you back from your potential, from performing with excellence. Limiting the time you spend in multitasking mode goes against the grain, the status quo of today’s culture, but the rewards are well worth it. Reclaim the lost minutes and hours of your week. Get more done. Show the important people in your life that you really do care. I think you’ll surprise yourself.
Question: How is multitasking getting in your way? And what is possible if you could increase your focus? I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments below.