No matter what room you are in, if you start talking about productivity someone will inevitably say,
“I’m a great multitasker”.
I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, no you’re not.
Multitasking improves your productivity about as much as eating bread crusts will make your hair curly.
In short, the empirical evidence demonstrates that in shifting between executive cognitive control processes (i.e. anything you do at work) your brain goes through two stages:
Goal shifting – That is, I want to do this now, instead of that;
Rule activation – I’m turning off the rules for the task I was doing and now I’m turning on the rules for the task I am doing;
What is great about how the brain works is that these stages allow us to easily switch between different tasks with minimal cost in productivity (a few tenths of a second).
That shift of a few tenths of a second though is the reason why it is illegal to talk on your phone and drive (I can hear the outcries now, happy to discuss the difference between talking on the phone and to someone in the car with anyone that is interested).
The reason multitasking IS an issue though is that over the course of a day all these switches add up, not to mention the time you lose actually doing the activity (i.e. reading an email that you aren’t going to respond to until later anyway).
In a 2001 study Rubinstein, Meyer and Evans conducted 4 experiments in which they looked at the effect switching between problem solving tasks had on the time it took participants to solve the problem.
An example of what they looked at in the study was the time it took someone to classify geometric shapes in succession compared with how long it took after solving a maths problem.
What they found was that, regardless of the task they were switching to, participants were up to 40% slower if they switched from an unrelated task compared to if they were completing related tasks in succession.
To put that in perspective, if you are able to tweak your work habits a little, you could start your weekend after work on Wednesday and no one would notice. Alternatively, you could complete 18 months worth of work in 13.
If you are interested in reading more leave a comment and I can send through some reference material to you.
So what can you do today to improve your productivity?
Every book on productivity will say choose a task and stick with it.
So take some time over the next week or so to write down the things that interrupt you and think about the ways you could reduce the number of interruptions or if you can group them to reduce switching costs.
The ones that jump out for most people are email and phone calls.
You are in control of what appears on your computer so make the choice to only check your email at scheduled times.
Phone calls are a little harder however where possible try and schedule phone calls or if you are calling people, complete the calls in blocks of time.
If you are interested in productivity resources there are some really cool tools to help you. They are all pretty similar however; the one I like the most is Dave Seah’s “Emergent Task Planner”.
I’ve included a link to the website below, which has both free printable PDF’s and an identical planner that you can buy:
At the end of the day, no matter how good your plan is, things will come up unexpectedly that you need to get done.
The purpose of taking some time to think about how you can be more productive is not to eliminate those things.
It is to give yourself a framework so that you can eliminate all the other things that are slowing you down once you start, like checking your email every 5 seconds.