Most of us have the potential to improve our productivity by as much as 40%. That untapped ability is hiding in plain sight. The key to unleashing our latent productivity is leveraging how our brains function for optimal time management. Believe it or not, time management is primarily a function of neuroscience, instead of how we organize our surroundings or schedules. The kryptonite that saps our productivity is the illusion of multitasking.
The Lie of Multitasking
As a recently recovered multitasker myself, I know how seductive the idea of doing several things simultaneously can be. It feels like we are doing more than humanly possible, and our adrenaline surges. For at least two decades I was extraordinarily proud of my ability to multitask. These days it can seem like most careers expect that we multitask in order to do what we are being asked to accomplish.
The truth is, however, I was not multitasking at all. No one is. The reason is that there is no such thing. Our brains are incapable of multitasking. It just feels like we are, when in fact, we are rapidly switching tasks. We do it while we are driving and talking, watching a show and skimming our phones, listening to a podcast while working out, and so on. This is far easier to do when we are using different inputs (eg: listening to a podcast, while physically running on a treadmill) but nonetheless, it is still rapid task switching.
How Multitasking Kills Productivity
What neuroscience has discovered is that when we switch tasks (rapidly, or otherwise) there is a delay as we refocus. This delay adds up, the more we focus, refocus and re-re-focus. If we do a difficult task, then switch to an easy task, there is a delay we will call X. Interestingly, and perhaps counter-intuitively, if we switch from doing an easy task to doing a difficult task, the switch time actually decreases to 1/2X.
What is important to remember is that this delay time for refocusing adds up quickly, and adds as much as 40% more time for completing tasks when compared to simply doing the task in a focused manner. Additionally, multitasking adds opportunity for mistakes which require more effort over time to repair.
Over time our brains rewire themselves to anticipate operating in a distracted state. When there is focused attention time, they actively seek out something to add distraction because that’s “what’s supposed to be happening.” That’s the unfortunate news. The good news comes in the form of neuroplasticity. What our brains learn to do, they can unlearn as well. We can rewire ourselves to focus without distraction.
The Cure for Multitasking
Reclaiming all that wasted refocusing time is not as difficult (or damaging) as we might imagine. Self-awareness is the single most powerful tool any of us have available to us for any transformation we choose to undertake. First, we recognize we are trying to multitask. When we are aware of it, we can actively choose which task to focus on, and for how long. We are perfectly able to turn off our email, messaging, social alerts, apps and even our watch alerts, so we can perform an important task, when we choose to do so.
A great way to improve our ability to focus faster and for sustained periods of time is to practice mindfulness or meditation. I will add a caveat, that although I am a huge proponent of both of these techniques, and discuss them in my upcoming book, Inside Out Smart, there are individuals who experienced trauma and have unresolved grief, who can have negative experiences with the techniques. That does not imply they are “broken” – only that other work must be done before they can use the techniques optimally.
As with every shift we make, focused practice makes all the difference. I hope to hear from some of you multitaskers how creating focused attention blocks improve your productivity!