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Break Your Multitasking Habit And Get More Done

Is it a good idea to multitask? Studies of the impact of cell phone use on our ability to focus on complex tasks such as driving, operating machinery or walking, show that the brain does not multitask well at all – even if the inputs are being processed in different areas of the brain.

Juggling tasks that require cognitive, creative or problem-solving skills only aggravates the negative impacts of multitasking: reduced productivity and increased stress. If your work requires mental effort, and almost all modern jobs do, then it is essential to break the multitasking habit. Here are some ideas to help you reduce your multitasking, so you can be more focused and get more done:

1. Organize your day

Organize your day into focused blocks of ninety minutes to three hours of work, no less or no more. Choose a theme for each block: business development, problem-solving, administration, marketing, production, design, planning, etc. Group your tasks to execute on those relating to the theme during the allotted time block. If other ideas come up, have a little notebook handy to jot them down (the “idea parking lot”), then go back to what you were doing. You will find as time goes on you will experience fewer thought interruptions. Grouping your tasks into themes enables you to focus at peak efficiency.

2. Minimize context switching

We call it multitasking, but in reality it is time-slicing: focusing on one task for a moment then putting it on pause to switch to the other task. If the tasks are too dissimilar, it takes time for your brain to switch from one task to another. The context switching time can take anywhere from one minute to sixty minutes, depending on how focused, creative or analytical you need to be to carry out the task. This is why multitasking is not efficient. By grouping similar tasks together in themes, and executing each task in a serial order (one after the other), the context switching time between tasks is minimized and productivity soars.

3. Control external interruptions

Responding to external interruptions such as phone calls, e-mail or colleagues breaks your focus and triggers the context switching delay. Suppose your context switching time is five minutes for each interruption – this time quickly adds up! Let your voice mail answer your calls. Close your office door or put a “Do Not Disturb” sign. Discipline yourself to check and respond to e-mail and voice mail at most two or three times a day, outside of your focused working periods. This should be sufficient for even those who expect instantaneous responses to messages. You may need to reset the expectations of your co-workers or clients by letting them know at what times you are available to respond to calls, but they will appreciate your professionalism.

4. Create a space to focus

Space is an important element of focus. Create a physical work area distinct from your living area, so that when you go to your work area, it is a cue to your brain that you are now in work mode. Arrange your work area to minimize external distractions. I recommend wearing a pair of good quality noise-cancelling headphones, with or without appropriate music. Dressing up for your work periods, even when at home, is another powerful cue. I also have different places for different themes: client work is done in my home office, and creative work is done at a local coffee shop (where I wear my noise-cancelling headphones).

As you learn to break your multitasking tendencies and maximize your focus, you will minimize distractions, reduce context switching time, and get more done with less stress.

For more information

I originally posted this article on EzineArticles: http://ezinearticles.com/?id=4375260

An interesting article on multitasking in the journal of the American Psychological Association:
http://www.apa.org/monitor/oct01/multitask.aspx

And from ArsTechnica.com:
http://arstechnica.com/old/content/2007/03/study-says-leave-the-multitasking-to-your-computer.ars

And why you shouldn’t text and walk (NYTimes.com):
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/25/business/25multi.html

Image credit: Ryan Ritchie on Flickr
Direct image link: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ryantron/4453018910/
Used under Creative Commons 2.0 licence

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