The High Cost Of Multitasking

Steve Uzzell

Multitasking is merely the opportunity to screw up more than one thing at a time.

It is not possible to effectively focus on more than one thing at a time. You may think that you are the exception and that you can multitask.

Be honest with yourself...

Multitasking is terrible. In fact, at my office it is common to hear the phrase, "Can you please repeat the question? I was multitasking..." It's literally a code word for not paying attention at all.

An office is filled with distractions, ranging from the cubicle neighbor selling her daughter’s Girl Scout cookies to one of your several bosses asking you about the cover sheet for your TPS report.

Meanwhile, you're trying to finish up your report while your friend is pinging you about lunch and another is asking about weekend plans.

Distractions come from all directions

If you're working on a side hustle, you are trying to cram even more productivity into your day, and distractions are costly.


Why do we do it?

We have a lot of tasks to accomplish in a limited amount of time, and we are trying to get as much done as possible. When we multitask, we have the best intentions.


Switching Tasks

Switching tasks is the worst part of multitasking. This is illustrated very well in "The One Thing," by Gary Keller so check it out. (That's an affiliate link.) The idea is that there is a very significant productivity cost to switching between tasks. Let me illustrate...


Imagine you're reviewing a spreadsheet and you have been working on it for 20 minutes. You are intensely focused and are making great progress.


Then, a chat window pops up simultaneously with a chime - it's your boss telling you that she sent you an email and that you should read it.


Bam...You've lost your train of thought.


Did you forget to do something?


Why is she following up with an IM right after sending an email?


You sweat a bit as you panic while replying back to your boss. You see the email is just a cat gif and you've already seen it before.


Great waste of time...You think to yourself, "Where was I...?"


You head back over to your spreadsheet and it takes you a few minutes to recall what you were doing. It takes another 20 minutes due to several new distractions to get back into that super effective flow state.


I take a lot of prompts from Tim Ferriss, so here is a little excerpt from the 4-Hour Workweek. (That's an affiliate link.)

The 4-Hour Workweek


Do not multitask

Trying to brush your teeth, talk on the phone, and answer e-mail at the same time just doesn’t work. Eating while doing online research and instant messaging? Ditto.

If you prioritize properly, there is no need to multitask. It is a symptom of “task creep”—doing more to feel productive while actually accomplishing less. As stated, you should have, at most, two primary goals or tasks per day. Do them separately from start to finish without distraction. Divided attention will result in more frequent interruptions, lapses in concentration, poorer net results, and less gratification.

Wise words about multitasking: If you prioritize properly, there is no need to multitask. @tferriss

Click to Tweet

Get in the Zone

Recall a time when you have really been "in the zone." You could have been doing anything - cooking, playing your best round of golf, coding, designing, anything...


(It's commonly called a "Flow State" but that's another big topic.)


In this state you were concentrating intensely, you probably lost your sense of time, and you were totally absorbed in whatever you were doing. This state is impossible to achieve if you are continuously distracted by others or yourself.


You will produce better results if you can get into a flow state. You will be more effective and efficient.


Set yourself up to avoid multitasking & get in the zone

Control your environment and you can ensure that you greatly reduce or ideally eliminate multitasking.


Here is what you should do:

1

Have a clear task that you need to complete.

Be specific about the final goal or result. The task should also be something that you CAN accomplish in a single session. It should take no more than 2-3 hours of your time. If you have less time, that's okay but be realistic about what you can complete. For example, planning on researching & starting a new Ecommerce store from scratch in a couple hours is not an attainable goal.

2

Schedule the time.

Block off dedicated time solely to work on your task. Politely let coworkers or family members know not to disturb you during this time, and stick to it.

3

Get rid of other distractions.

I'm talking about how you distract yourself now. Don't check your email. Don't check Facebook or Twitter. Don't get lost in Google News or Youtube. If you need to, you can download software to block websites.

4

Complete the task.

That's the easy part now that you have set yourself up for success.


Conclusion


People that accomplish impressive feats are not multitaskers. We can't afford to spend the mental effort switching from task to task. It takes a massive toll on our effectiveness and the quality of our work.

  • Make sure you know what your goal is before you start.
  • Schedule time to work.
  • Take the time to set up your environment.
  • Eliminate the distractions so you can truly focus.

If you take these steps you will accomplish your goals more quickly. Time will fly by and before you know it, it will be done.






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13 comments… add one
  • Muhammad Hussein Nov 3, 2014, 11:14 am

    Wow. Awesome article to share with a couple of co-workers.

    Side question: which shortcode plugin you use to make those wonderful boxes?

    • Doug cunnington Nov 3, 2014, 11:39 am

      Hey Muhammad Hussein – Thanks for the comment. 🙂

      I am using the Thrive Content Builder – it’s fantastic! Here is my affiliate link if you’re interested. I will probably do a demo post sometime soon since I like the plugin so much.

  • RJ Bryan Nov 3, 2014, 11:21 am

    I like it- Question: When we block time to focus on one aspect of a project- when we have multiple projects- doesn’t that mean we are still multitasking? just on a different scale? or does the term lose its power once you are locked in on a set time for a piece of one project.

    • Doug cunnington Nov 3, 2014, 12:05 pm

      Hi @rjbryan:disqus – I see what you mean.

      It is sort of multitasking.

      What we’re really talking about here is working on two or more tasks that aren’t related. You spend time switching tasks and you lose momentum on your primary task.

      You can work on two different projects or initiatives in the same day (of course) but you should try not to work on them in the same work period.

      So you can work on two or many projects in parallel – definitely – and everyone has to do that.

      The main point here is that when you want to get something done – you need to work on that something by itself – with no other distractions. We can get in trouble when we switch back and forth on different things. That makes everything take longer and mistakes are more likely.

      Does that help? How do you view multitasking? Do you find it less effective than when you focus?

      • RJ Bryan Nov 4, 2014, 11:01 am

        Yes, great breakdown. I commented because you didn’t mention multiple projects so I wondered if you thought about that when you wrote this post.

        I definitely think multitasking is a bad idea. I often lose track of where you were and the quality of the work decreases.

  • Grand Nov 5, 2014, 2:27 pm

    Hi Doug!

    Thanks for raising the great topic – I totally agree on switching between tasks and how much metal energy it consumes. Eventually, in my view it all comes down to visualising end result and planning thoroughly first, which makes it easier to “envision” the path to the result – so each stage can also be planned and placed into specific time frame, like – on Monday I do this and this, then Thursday – this and this etc.

    Without planning it becomes much harder to understand what needs to be accomplished, and multitasking becomes the natural responce to not having a clear plan of actions.

    By the way, “The ONE Thing” – great book! I read it last year and it’s full of insights and wisdom even for those who knows a lot about productivity.

  • John Nov 9, 2014, 7:38 pm

    nice idea Doug

  • suresh Dec 8, 2015, 9:11 pm

    Nice post doug really a good idea..
    Regards,
    Suresh.

  • Nils Salzgeber Apr 7, 2016, 7:58 am

    Hey Doug

    Good stuff. Multitasking is definitely a terrible idea and The One Thing is definitely a great book. Hah.

    In fact, I’ve just written a new article on some of the science of multitasking. It’s pretty scary stuff with some studies showing that it can actually damage our brain in the long-run. You can check it out here if you like:
    http://www.njlifehacks.com/multitasking/

    Keep up the good work,
    Nils

  • Gabi Oct 25, 2016, 6:39 am

    Hey Doug,

    Great article!

    I never knew that multitasking was a bad thing until I got my hands on the audio book “The One Thing,” by Gary Keller.

    Strangely, the quote by Steve Uzzell is one thing that stuck with me from the book. That’s after I almost died laughing because it’s true and then from embarrassment when I realized I was bragging to everyone about how I could majestically screw up more than one thing at a time.

    It hit me so hard, I even remember the moment I heard it the first time, it was like a light bulb lit up.

    You know how us women like to brag that we can multitask?! Well, I stopped doing that! The bragging part anyway! I’m still working on not actually doing it.

    Now I don’t even open my emails while I’m working. I don’t answer my phone and I only facebook at set times.

    I was struggling to focus when doing keyword research (I think it’s addictive) because I’d come across a phrase totally unrelated to the research I was doing but it was an idea/niche I wanted to explore. And then I’d go off on a tangent taking me nowhere.

    Now, I have a notepad window open and copy/paste anything like that I find for later research. It’s helped a ton to keep me focused on the task at hand.

    Also, realizing that the sense of accomplishment from a to-do-list is false was an eye-opener. I’m training myself to create success lists instead.

    Learning new skills in productivity takes me some time. I’ve always ‘bounced around’ a lot and drilling down to that one thing can be tricky sometimes – well for me anyway.

  • Akshay Girhepuje Nov 15, 2016, 6:53 am

    Great read..

    I am facing the same problem. I am trying to study as my exams are near and at the same time I am working on increasing my Instagram followers and reach. And I am not doing that much great at both of them. Now I know the reason behind it. Will definitely use it right away. Thank you.

    Meanwhile you can check my blog post about how to work more in less time here.. http://www.edgylist.com/life-hacks/ultimate-guide-to-work-more-in-less-time/

  • Bill Livingston Mar 28, 2017, 3:37 pm

    Doug,
    Excellent article! I, too, try hard not to multitask and have been introducing my colleagues to studies that show a reduction in effectiveness when trying to multitask. I’ve pointed them to a 2009 Stanford study that showed multitaskers performed much worse in a number of brain-related tests than did a group of single-taskers. A recent article by Dr. Travis Bradbury mentions the Stanford research and other studies that support what Stanford found. Honestly, I figured that was that – don’t ever multitask if you’re trying to be efficient … but get this.
    Other recent studies show you can actually train your brain to be better (good?) at multitasking. California State in 2016 showed that certain multitasking abilities can be improved through training your verbal memory. In 2014, The University of Montreal did research that showed training provided through commercial brain-training software helped older people to multitask.
    So, I guess the best guidance is to reduce multitasking as much as possible to improve your efficiency. If, however, you just can’t do that, you can improve your multitasking abilities by doing the right types of brain training.

    Ref:
    Stanford: http://news.stanford.edu/2009/08/24/multitask-research-study-082409/
    Dr. Bradbury: https://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2014/10/08/multitasking-damages-your-brain-and-career-new-studies-suggest/
    California State: http://www.sccur.org/sccur/fall_2016_conference/posters/287/
    University of Montreal: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140820091050.htm

  • Shu Ying Apr 26, 2017, 12:19 pm

    Hey Doug, great post.

    I multitask and it’s something that I’m trying really hard to quit.

    I tend to multitask when I’m watching a learning video so what I do is to turn the video on at 2x speed so it forces me to focus on what the person is saying.

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