Researchers have shown that you can improve your overall work performance, complete tasks more quickly, and retain information if you focus on one task at a time. That may seem impossible to do in this era of constant emails, phone calls, social media alerts and texts; but not doing so is making you less productive and lowering your quality of work.
Employers have long encouraged multitasking as a way of increasing employee productivity. Research shows it has the opposite effect.
Molecular biologist John Medina, author of Brain Rules (2008), notes that “individuals that multitask experience a 40% drop in productivity, take 50% longer to accomplish a single task, and make up to 50% more errors” than those who focus on completing one task at a time. Consider those numbers for a moment: significantly lower productivity, efficiency and accuracy.
On average, you are likely distracted 30 to 40 times a day, whether by email, text, co-worker interruptions, phone calls, or even just background noise and chatter. That means a company loses approximately 330 hours of productive time per 100 employees every day. Depending on the average hourly rate, that can equate to thousands, if not millions of dollars per year.
Business profit/loss is impacted as well when deliverables and SLAs are not met, often resulting in unhappy customers and a shrinking client base.
Monetary losses aside, you, the unapologetic multi-tasker, are damaging your health.
A study by Clifford Nass, Stanford University, (2009) revealed that participants who multitask the most are distracted by unimportant information that is stored in their short-term memory. This leads to leads to over-stimulation of your brain function and this adversely increases your stress levels. This constant high stress level can cause you to become sick more often, miss days of work, and decrease your overall work productivity. It can also lead to long-term health issues as you age.
So what can be done?
To minimize the need, and subsequent negative effects of multitasking, it is essential that management and employees strategically plan and implement SMART goals in terms of productivity (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely).
“Tasks should be prioritized and goals should be set out for each day, week or month – to ensure that employees have a clear view of their most important tasks and deadlines. This will allow them to prioritize and feel more comfortable about reaching their goals,” says Van den Barselaar.
Van den Barselaar offers some tips to help remain focused and minimize distraction:
- Work offline: Disconnect from the internet. This will help you to stop checking social media and news feeds every five minutes. Set a schedule for checking these things and stick to it. Emails at the top of each hour, for example.
- Take your time to set up your tasks. Don’t be afraid to slow down and plan out your line of attack. The more time you put in at the start, the less you’ll waste down the line.
- Make a realistic “to do” list: A to do list is great, but a list of 20 items can be demotivating. Rather list the top five things that are most urgent or have the highest pay off. When these are done, make another list of the next five, and so on.
- Pick one thing and finish it. When you set a clear rule that you will focus on only one specific task at a time, you increase your efficiency dramatically.
- Break larger projects into chunks so you can have the mental satisfaction of striking something off your list, and can move to another project if needed, knowing when you come back to the original one, you are clear about where to pick up again.
- Keep website addresses and contact information well organized. This will reduce search time significantly. It is worth the effort to do it correctly from the start so you can quickly find the information you need later. Bookmarks for websites, and only the information you really need for contacts.
- Time block: Dedicate certain times to certain tasks. This will help in managing your time, and lead to tasks being completed faster and better.
- Make a quiet space: In the open office plan age, ambient noise can stimulate the release of cortisol (stress hormone). This leads to reduced brain function, and higher distraction.
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