The Myth of Multi-Tasking: Learning to Reprioritize and Just Say “No”

Remember when you were young and it was a challenge to pat your head and rub your belly at the same time?  Remember how after some practice you’d be able to clumsily perform this feat for a minute or two?  This was likely your first attempt at multi-tasking.

Fast-forward 30 years, and you are probably still trying to do two things (or if you’re anything like me, then it’s more like three or four things) at once.  Respond to e-mail while you participate in a conference call?  No problem!  Text message while you’re doing your homework?  Sure thing!  Right?

Wrong!  While it may seem like you’re successfully multi-tasking, in reality you’re likely stumbling clumsily through both tasks that you’re attempting, doing neither of them very well.  Humans are not multi-taskers.  This is particularly evident when you try to complete two similar tasks at the same time – they are both competing to use the same part of your brain – slowing you down as a result.  Studies show that putting yourself in this type of situation can knock a whopping ten points off of your IQ – comparable to losing an entire night’s sleep.  In fact, studies show that when you’re frequently diverted from one task to another, you work faster but produce less.  After just a few minutes of interruption, you tend to feel more stressed and frustrated.  In short, multi-tasking harms your bottom line.

So, what is the alternative?  You still have 82 things to get done today at the office, right?  You can be nearly 40% more effective if you focus on each task individually, and subsequently you’ll accomplish more.  Here are some tips to lose that bad multi-tasking habit that you’ve developed:

  • Schedule your time…and stick to it.  Allow yourself some time to address those emergencies that will undoubtedly arise throughout your day, but prioritize your time so you can address those things that need to be addressed.  Need an hour to prepare a presentation?  Put your phone on ‘do not disturb’, close your office door, and get to work.  It’s likely that postponing those interruptions will be harmless.
  • Say “no” whenever possible.  Shorten your daily to-do list by saying “no” to a task that will just lead to busy work that doesn’t accomplish your goal.  Saying “no” doesn’t always mean that you’re saying “no” forever, sometimes it’s more like you’re saying “not right now” which is perfectly acceptable when you need to prioritize your tasks in order to achieve a result.
  • Go unplugged.  If you can’t ignore that ‘ding’ notifying you of a new email or that little red push notification on your phone while you’re working on that contract in your office, silence them.  Don’t bring your phone into that meeting – and don’t freak out about it. That’s why voicemail was invented!
  • Focus on tools that actually help you accomplish your goal.  Relying on technology to simplify things for you is not always the right choice.  Sure, some new techy-gadget or apps might actually increase your productivity, but more often than not, they’re taking up your valuable resources – you’re investing time to learn them – to update them – to remember where you put them!  It’s not necessarily the best choice to join every social media channel just because your friends or co-workers have.  The ever increasing technology that surrounds us and increases our productivity tenfold over what it was just ten years ago is the same technology that is reducing our intelligence.
  • Don’t waste your time saying or doing things that aren’t necessary.  If you’re busy, do you really need to Tweet about that show you watched last night, or respond “LOL” to every random email or text message that you get?

Prioritize your tasks and focus on those that add value to your cause – that help you to get where you’re going.  If you learn to multi-task less and prioritize more, you’ll likely find that not only can you get more done, but you may actually have enough time at the end of the day to Tweet about that show you watched last night.

Lord Chesterfield had the right idea in the 1740s when he wrote to his son, “There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.”  Really, nothing has changed in the more than 250 years since then.

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