The Simple Way to Make Multitasking Actually Work

by Linsey Knerl on 6 March 2014 1 comment

At the moment, as I am working on this article, I am also watching television, checking Twitter and Facebook, texting with my daughter, checking on dinner, and chatting with a colleague on G+ chat. I am attempting to multitask, but judging by how long it has taken me to write these first few lines of text, I don't think I'm all that successful at it. (See also: "Life Hacks" You Shouldn't Bother With)

Multitasking is a part of our lives. We are busier than ever before. Whether it is juggling kids' schedules while speaking with clients on the phone and writing notes down for the grocery list, we are all trying to cram more into our lives. The question is, however, is it effective? When does multitasking work and when doesn't it?

When Multitasking Gets in the Way

If you routinely find yourself attempting to multitask, you may be doing more harm for your productivity than good. Some research has shown that multitasking actually increases the time it takes to complete tasks and decreases productivity. (See also: This Daily Activity Is Ruining Your Productivity)

Multitasking does not work when you are trying to do two or more tasks that require conscious effort. Take, for example, the two tasks of texting while driving. Many people will tell you they are great at multitasking, but are they really? You aren't able to focus on the road when you are looking down at your phone to find a number, open an app, or type out a message. At the very minimum, you'll make mistakes typing with one hand. The New York Times points to research that shows texting while driving is akin to drunk driving. Your ability to focus on what lane you are in, your speed, and the distance you are from other cars greatly decreases when you are also focused on the phone.

This phenomenon is no different when you are trying to multitask at home or work. Have you ever tried to have a phone conversation with someone who is typing on their computer, dealing with their children, or ordering a coffee at Starbucks? The phone conversation fails to progress because the person on the other line is unable to process two thoughts at the same time.

Use Layers to Make Multitasking Work — Sometimes

Multitasking works when the tasks you are attempting to complete require different levels of thought and only one requires you to really focus your thought processes. For example, folding laundry while you are having a phone conversation (with the phone on speaker) or typing a letter while dinner simmers on the stove.

Multiple tasks can be completed when they are layered by their level of attention needed. If you only need minimal attention on one task, for example, doing the laundry while another task is in process (such as getting dinner started), then you can layer in a more complex task, like answering a few emails. This layering of different types of tasks is still multitasking, and it can be done successfully. However, once you add in another task that requires more thought processes (taking a phone call from your boss, for example) one of the tasks must stop. In this example, answering the emails should be halted.

Setting Up Your Layers

Once you understand that you actually can multitask with a layered system, go ahead and set one up.

1. Make a List

Prioritize the most important tasks on your list that need to be accomplished. Refer back to that list as you complete activities. (See also: How to Achieve All Your Goals)

2. Look for Layered Tasks to Pair

Find an activity that can be paired with a higher level item on your list. For example, if you need to contact a business, and you know you'll be on hold for 20 minutes, use that hold time to address a few emails. Or if you need to do laundry, cook dinner, and call your mom, then start the wash, get dinner to the point where it is simmering, and then make the phone call (see #4).

3. Turn Off Other Distractions

That means you need to put your phone on silent. Exit out of Twitter, Facebook, and email. Reduce the noise level in the room, and tackle the most pressing item on your list first.

4. Set a Timer

When you are working on tasks, set a timer to check your progress. If you anticipate that a task should take no longer than one hour, set a timer for sixty minutes. Check where you are when it goes off. Are you distracted? Did something pop up that you felt needed addressed immediately? Are you on the phone with mom for too long and dinner is about to burn? Using a timer will keep you focused on your tasks and keep your productivity level high. (See also: How to Stay Focused at Work)

But Is Layering Enough?

When I began this article last night, I was attempting to multitask. It took me well over an hour to write the first three paragraphs. I decided to do my own unscientific study to see how well I was doing. I turned off everything.

No email. No Twitter. No Facebook. No G+ chat. No cell phone. No television.

When everything was off and my attention was solely focused on writing, I was able to finish the rest of this article relatively quickly. Lesson learned on my end. I will continue to minimize those activities that I once deemed multitasking when I really want to be productive.

Are you able to multitask? What works for you? Please share in comments while you wait for the tea kettle to whistle!

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Cris Garcia

I am a Muititasker. In many ways than one actually. I have dont such things as to playing video games, while talking to my friend on the phone. Of course if i were to add in Watching a video into the task then i would fail at one of the others mostyl because i am busy watching the video. There are many steps you can take depending on the task. Ie: You can eat a meal while you watch a movie which is a simple task. Eat, and watch the movie. Simple enough. You can have a conversation on the phone with a friend while you fold cloths and watch T.V. This does not really require much attention. While you are watching T.V. Your friend on the other line might be talking to you but, it does not take a whole lot of skill ot do those two together. Folding cloths (if you have done this many times and dont even have to look to do it or you probibly dont even notice it) will come to ease to you even while you do all these other tasks at once.