Reality check: We live in a busy world where a million things are happening at once. For many of us, multitasking is a way to keep up with the grind. From checking email at brunch with friends to finishing a status report during a staff meeting, a lot of us are trying to accomplish a lot—all at the same time.
Here’s the problem: Only two percent of us multitask effectively. That means the remaining 98 percent of us are running around like headless chickens in the name of “productivity."
So what to do? It’s time to put down your smartphone, lift up your head, and actually listen to that funny joke your friend is telling or that question your boss is about to throw your way. Increased productivity is available to us all—and surprisingly, it may come in the form of doing only one thing at a time.
What's the Deal?
Just so we’re all on the same page, multitasking means trying to do more than one thing a time. In the era of smartphones, tablets, and laptops, it’s easy to multitask without even realizing it. After all, most of us have checked Facebook in chemistry class or during that long conference call (at least once).
Multitasking with a phone (or iPad, tablet, etc.) is so prevalent that one study called it the “epidemic of distraction.” The epidemic of distraction. Weksler ME, Weksler BB. Gerontology, 2012, May.;58(5):1423-0003. Contrary to popular thought, addiction to mobile electronic devices may actually impair multitasking, lower performance, and result in cognitive overload. Guess we aren’t as productive with that iPhone as we thought, huh?
Your Action Plan
As it turns out, our brains aren’t very good at doing more than one thing at a time. One study found that the brain may get overwhelmed when faced with multiple tasks. A bottleneck model of set-specific capture. Moore KS, Weissman DH. PloS one, 2014, Feb.;9(2):1932-6203. Researchers found that when we attempt to multitask, the brain “bottlenecks” the information and quickly moves its attention from one thing to the next, instead of addressing the items simultaneously. Rather than becoming more productive when faced with multiple tasks to accomplish at once, this suggests we really only become more frazzled—and thus less able to handle the challenges of a high workload.
While most of us are susceptible to multitasking, research suggests that people who have a harder time blocking out distractions and focusing on a single task are more likely to be multitaskers. Who multi-tasks and why? Multi-tasking ability, perceived multi-tasking ability, impulsivity, and sensation seeking. Sanbonmatsu DM, Strayer DL, Medeiros-Ward N. PloS one, 2013, Jan.;8(1):1932-6203. And those who multitask usually overestimate how successful they are at doing so (sorry, guys).
But there’s hope yet. Once you’re willing to accept that multitasking isn’t doing you any favors, follow these tips for focusing on one thing at a time—without sacrificing productivity.
1. Put down your phone (or tablet or laptop...)
Block out distractions while you work, hang out with friends, or play the guitar by turning off the phone, TV, and anything else that draws you away from what you’re actually doing.
2. Get into a routine.
This can be helpful if you spend a good chunk of your day on the computer or working from home. Instead of diving in to tasks willy-nilly, set up a schedule that tells you what to work on and when (and be sure to incorporate some breaks into the day). That way, you’ll know what to expect from yourself each time you sit down to work (and you’ll be less tempted to goof off on ESPN.com or tinker with household repairs).
3. Set goals.
Know what you’re going to do before you start doing it. If you have no clear path, distractions can come easily. Before starting a new task, take a few minutes to plan out the steps you’ll need to complete and in what order—that way, you’ll be less able to wander. An important step of goal setting? A quality to-do list.
4. Eat a good breakfast.
Turns out taking a second to chow down on a healthy breakfast can help boost concentration and focus. Breakfast eating habit and its influence on attention-concentration, immediate memory and school achievement. Gajre NS, Fernandez S, Balakrishna N. Indian pediatrics, 2009, Jan.;45(10):0019-6061. Bonus points if that meal includes some protein.
Studies suggest that regular meditation can boost brain function and is associated with better focus and attention. Intensive meditation training improves perceptual discrimination and sustained attention. MacLean KA, Ferrer E, Aichele SR. Psychological science, 2010, May.;21(6):1467-9280. It can also help reduce stress when a massive to-do list is looming.
6. Block it out.
Can’t beat distraction with willpower alone? Don’t worry: There are applications out there that will shut down distractions on your media devices. An app called Dark Room transforms your computer into a focused writing space. For $15, the app Anti-Social will stop you from checking social media while working. And Rescue Time allows you to block select sites and track the amount of time you spend on various activities, so you can adjust accordingly.
7. Listen well.
We’re not being the most productive when we’re half listening to someone while checking our phone, Facebook, and LinkedIn all at once (also, it’s just plain rude). To be a better listener (and get the info you need the first time), face the speaker and look him/her right in the eye, and stay present with the conversation. Who cares if you have 12 unread emails? This person deserves your attention.
8. Cut out clutter.
To help avoid distractions, stay organized. Find a place for everything on your desk, and keep your paperwork in order so you’re not wasting time searching through piles of files (say that five times fast). This goes for your desktop too: Keep files organized and close extra browser windows and tabs so you can work with a clean screen. For an extra boost, apply some Feng Shui principles to your workspace.
9. Give yourself a break.
Catch yourself staring at your computer? Literally, just staring at it? Probably time for a break. Studies show taking brief breaks during a task can improve focus. Brief and rare mental "breaks" keep you focused: deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements. Ariga A, Lleras A. Cognition, 2011, Jan.;118(3):1873-7838. So walk around the block, get up and do some jumping jacks, or take five minutes to face the wall and breathe deep.
10. Read about it.
Want even more tips? There are plenty of books available that will help you develop strategies for achieving better focus and deeper concentration. Check out this list to get started.
It may not be easy to quit, but science says multitasking isn't all it’s cracked up to be. Staying focused and concentrating on one task at a time is worth a shot. And who knows? We may end up getting more done—and feel calmer—in the long run.
Originally published March 2014. Updated September 2015.