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Multitasking in Business: Why It Doesn’t Work

multitasking in business

The popularity of multitasking in business is a result of a misconception that it is a way to get more things done. The truth is that multitasking reduces productivity by up to 40 per cent and lessens the limited supply of attention that employees have to offer. It can even lower intelligence and negatively affect decision making. With COVID-19 lockdowns and more people working from home, it can be even more challenging to stay focused. Given the impact of this problem, it’s important to understand what multitasking is and what you can do to overcome it.

What is multitasking?

The term first came into use to explain the ability of computers to execute several tasks at one time. The idea made its way into the mainstream to reflect the concept of doing more than one task at a time to get more done. For example, students might work on school assignments while watching TV or listening to music. At work, an employee might work on creating slides for a sales presentation while answering emails or speaking to customers on the phone. Some types of multitasking can be deadly. In 2013, 79 people were killed in a train accident in Spain because the driver was distracted while talking on his mobile phone.

What is the cost of multitasking?

The first step in minimising multitasking is determining which tasks are the most important. When you know what needs to be done first, you can prioritise these over other tasks that are causing you to lose focus. Once you have prioritised tasks, you can take the next step of scheduling time for them.

Set aside time for tasks

Schedule time for important tasks to ensure that you can get these done. During this time avoid task switching. If you find yourself checking your phone, put it away. If you are constantly checking your emails, close your desktop email client or close your browser tab for cloud-based email. Bad habits, including multitasking, are hard to break so you might need to take extra steps to minimise distractions while you create new habits that will enable you to pay attention. 

In addition to setting aside time for large important tasks, you can set schedule time for checking emails and text and phone messages, and responding. For instance, this could be for an hour in the morning and another hour at the end of your workday. Setting aside these times will help you avoid distractions and improve your time management. 

Shut off distractions

To give tasks your full attention, turn off all distractions. This includes switching off alerts for text messages, emails, social media and messaging apps. Set aside time to get tasks done and let people know that you are focusing on a single task.

 In The Four-Hour Work Week, Tim Ferris suggests using the following autoresponder for email communication to avoid being distracted:

Hello,

Due to a high workload, I am currently checking and responding to e-mail twice daily at 12.00 pm (AEST) and 4.00 pm (AEST). 

If you require urgent assistance that cannot wait until these times, please call me on (phone number). 

Thank you for understanding this move to more efficiency and effectiveness. It helps me accomplish more to serve you better. 

Sincerely, 

If you are in an office space where you need to get work done without being interrupted, you can place a Do Not Disturb sign on your desk or use a device like the Kuando Busylight or the Luxafor Flag USB LED Busy Light which shows that your are busy or free to your coworkers.

Avoid unnecessary meetings

While some meetings are necessary, too many will cause employees to lose focus. If several meetings are scheduled each day, this means there is less time for focused work. In addition, staff members who need to get work done will be less likely to focus on the content of the meeting. Consider the options before calling a meeting, such as creating a document that team members can comment on when they have time. If you feel a meeting is necessary, keep it as short as possible and create an agenda.

Keep a focus on overcoming distractions

There are more techniques to reduce multitasking and regain focus at work. For business owners and staff, improving work habits is a long-term project. Many resources are available to help you regain focus in your work. For instance, Nir Eyal, the author of the best-selling book Indistractable, offers a range of tools and tips that can be implemented for ongoing improvement.

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