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Smart ways to manage multitasking

by Palak Barmaiya
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Many of us try to multitask every day whether at home or work. While research suggests multitasking can have negative consequences, there are smart ways to do it.

Multitasking, or juggling multiple tasks together, has become a common practice these days. This may simply be talking to a friend while driving or putting dishes in the dishwasher in between bouts of work. For a work-from-home parent, multitasking may be their only option. For others, there is a sense of accomplishment that comes with getting many things done in a short timeframe.

By definition, multitasking actually refers to switching from one task to another or performing two or more tasks in rapid succession. In other words, task-switching. Media multitasking, another form, is being on multiple media at the same time, for example, playing games on your cellphone while watching TV.  

Contrary to popular belief, multitasking is not an effective productivity booster for complex tasks. Despite being a sought-after skill in corporate settings, multitasking has been labeled a myth. Although many of us like the idea of multitasking as it seems to make us more productive, our actual ability to perform two tasks simultaneously is limited. Heavy media multitasking has even been linked with reduced attention and working memory, and reduced levels of performance.  

If you find yourself feeling stressed while multitasking, it is because rapidly switching attention causes increased blood pressure. Multitasking has been shown to decrease performance as people are more likely to make errors by switching their attention too fast. Dr Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California – Irvine, explains that ‘switch cost’ is the amount of time we take to reorient to a new activity. Constantly switching attention throughout the day increases the mental effort spent on these “switch costs.” This can cost as much as 40 percent of your productive time. Notice how many times while working on the computer or laptop you tend to check your text messages on the phone, which can trigger a different stream of thought or prompt you to make a phone call.     

Even as we multitask, some of us are better at it than others. However, if you feel fatigued or stressed out, overwhelmed, have difficulty focusing, make errors frequently, or feel a sense of disconnection, it may be time to consider an alternative approach to multitasking. Here are three simple tips you can try today:

1. Mind the 80/20 principle

The Pareto Principle, commonly known as the 80/20 principle, has been popular among business scholars and time-management gurus. Simply put, this rule suggests that 80 percent of the outcome is dependent on just 20 percent of the input. In other words, 20 percent of your efforts drive 80 percent of your results.

This principle is evident in various aspects of life, including business, where it is observed that 80 percent of a company’s revenue is generated by only 20 percent of its customers.

To utilize the 80/20 rule, begin by identifying the most crucial tasks at hand. The top 20 percent of all your goals are highly likely to drive about 80 percent of your overall progress.

2. Clear Your Mind

If you find yourself switching tasks rapidly, it is likely that you are feeling overwhelmed. This can also look like jumping into new projects or tasks frantically because you are freaking out. You are not able to focus or engage with a task at hand and constantly think about to-do lists in your head.

Productivity coach and author of the New York bestseller, Getting Things Done, David Allen suggests three steps to help you achieve a balanced level of perspective or focus and control. This balanced state will allow you to save the creative energy that you spend trying to remember or organize things in your head. It will also help you to stay engaged with focus and help you respond to change better.

Step I: Capture your thinking. 

Allen encourages people to write down all their thoughts on a notepad, or on the computer.

Step II: Make outcome/action decisions

Once you have cleared your mind off the list of things onto a journal or a notepad, think about the outcome you are committed to. For instance, if you want to open a savings account, decide on a date by which you want to get this done. How much money do you want to save? Do you need some time to research first? Decide on the action plan. Outline what you need to do to achieve that outcome.

Outlining the outcome/action helps you to get a clearer sense of the tasks/projects and you are likely to feel more engaged with your world.

Step III: Use the right maps

A map will help you bring together all aspects of your life. This means putting together everything that is important to your personal and professional life goals.

Explains Allen, “You use the map to decide, ‘OK, here’s the course that we’re going to go on.’ You then launch the ship on a trusted course in terms of the short term, as well as the long horizon that you’re moving on. And then, on some regular basis, you need to reassess. ‘OK, we need to take in new data, clean up, recalibrate, and refocus for the next leg of the journey’.”

3. Take a break

A long day of finishing task after task may be doable but it is likely to leave you feeling burned out. Taking a break is a helpful productivity strategy that can improve focus and efficiency. By doing so, individuals can optimize their work routine and maintain a higher level of productivity throughout the day.

“By taking breaks, we have more energy, we have more attentional capacity, and we can actually do more. We can be more productive. The problem is that in our current world, in many work environments, people neglect to take meaningful breaks, and we get ourselves into a position where our performance suffers as a result,” shares Dr. Mark.

She emphasizes that breaks should be taken at a ‘breakpoint’, which is a natural stopping point in a task. You leave a task when it’s completed or at a logical pause point. This allows your brain to disengage from the task more easily, making it easier to shift your focus to something else during the break.

Working continuously without breaks can lead to mental fatigue and reduced cognitive performance. By taking breaks at breakpoints, you give your mind a chance to rest and recharge, leading to increased alertness and improved decision-making when you return to the task.

Photo courtesy Pexels

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