Most of you probably know that multi-tasking comes with its share of downsides. And that’s a bit optimistic. While it became popular in the height of the tech boom and has been hailed as a marker of hard work and competence, critics of the strategy have called it inefficient and distracting. Some even assert that multitasking in the literal sense isn’t even real – the brain can’t actually focus on more than one thing at a time.
So who’s right? Does multitasking really not exist? How else am I supposed to accomplish everything I need to do in a day?
Let’s take a closer look.
Types of Multitasking
The truth is that many of us (dare I say most of us) have to juggle multiple tasks on a regular basis. It’s part of the job. And, oftentimes, we have to juggle different types of work, especially on smaller teams where you may have to wear many hats. It can be hard to decide what takes priority when you’re contributing to work on different teams and projects, and how to split your time effectively. In the real world, it’s not usually as simple as making a to-do list, prioritizing each task, and sticking to it. You have to find a sufficiently focused and flexible way to prioritize, schedule, and accomplish tasks to meet changing demands.
A common response to this problem, whether decided consciously or unconsciously, is to start multitasking. But people mean different things when they talk about multitasking, so let’s start by breaking them down.
The first is multitasking in the sense that you’re actually doing more than one thing at a time, patting-your-head-and-rubbing-your-tummy style. There are very few cases where this actually works, and most of them involve performing repetitive motor skills subconsciously, like the head-tummy combo, or when a drummer plays one rhythm on the kick drum with their foot, a second rhythm on the snare with one hand, and a third on the toms with the other.
Most desk work takes too much analytical thinking to translate into subconscious action, so we can’t let parts of it run on autopilot while focusing more directly on others. You’ve probably tried finishing a report while paying attention to a video meeting in the background. “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” Exactly.
The other, more common type of multitasking is the act of switching back and forth between two or more tasks in short increments. We tend to do this as soon as we recognize that we have too much to do and just start responding to the most immediate demand.
An instant message from your supervisor sends you in one direction, an urgent request from the marketing department sends you in another, a bug emerges on your website or in your product, and all the sudden, you’re spinning in your chair. For some, this happens every once and a while. For others, this type of multitasking is the status quo. This strategy also tends to fail because the brain has to spend so much energy switching between tasks and reorienting to the next environment that you end up getting less done in the same amount of time that you could have gotten done if you only focused on one thing. At the very least, you’re leaving a lot on the table. Worst case scenario, you’ll burn out and end up dropping the ball on more than just one task. With Back-and-Forth Multitasking, it is impossible to achieve the flow state needed to achieve efficiency.
Real Multitasking (accomplishing multiple tasks effectively)
So how do we actually multitask correctly? Let’s forget about multitasking for a minute. Instead, simply back up and ask the right question: how do I accomplish all of my work on time most efficiently? There is no single solution, but as you assess the work on your plate and the structure of your team, use some of the tips below to help you optimize your time.
1. Prioritize your tasks
Identify the work that matters most in the present moment to move the project forward. And then commit yourself unflinchingly to a set period of time, or to complete it, whichever makes the most sense. If you’re stuck, talk to teammates or your manager to clarify priorities. If you use project management software, see what the schedule tells you about the work that’s most important right now.
2. Schedule your work using time blocking
Knock out your todo list by blocking out time on your calendar for deep work. It can be helpful to actually create calendar events to remind yourself and others what you’ll be working on throughout the day. Since switching between different types of tasks can be especially difficult, try scheduling similar tasks next to each other so you don’t have to jump from something like coding straight to design and then back to coding.
Block longer periods of time for creative work. It usually requires more time to enter the deep focus required to employ strategic thinking. Break more mindless tasks up into smaller chunks. and use them to fill in the gaps (ie that annoying 30-minute block between meetings).
A trick that works well for some people is to move to a different room or location to help focus on a single task for a block of time. Taking your laptop to the couch or to the cafe down the street can help signal to your brain that you’re working on one thing within a specific time frame and physical context.
3. Don’t take breaks between short tasks
If you’ve just completed a task that took 20 minutes, avoid the temptation to reward yourself with a break just yet. A good rule of thumb when finishing short tasks is to do one more thing before taking a break. Breaks are necessary to retain energy and focus over the long term, but when it comes to crushing your todo list, they can actually derail your progress more than help in the short term. Find a balance that works for you. You might be surprised at how well this works and how easy it is to do.
4. Avoid taking on “urgent requests” if you can
It can be unrealistic for some people to refuse urgent requests. For some roles, such as technical support or any type of on-call position, a customer inquiry or request for help requires immediate attention. But many roles are focused on working towards longer term goals, and you can use more discretion with how to structure your time. It’s important to realize that not everything that’s marked as urgent actually needs to get done right away. It can be hard to refuse urgent requests, especially when you’re being asked by a manager or someone with more seniority or experience. Find a respectful way to communicate your priorities and let them know when you will have time to address the request. Most of your colleagues will understand and adjust their expectations.
5. Don’t contribute to a culture of multitasking
If you’re a manager or senior team member, try to keep the task switching at a minimum on your team. If influential members of the team are seen multitasking or facilitating multitasking, everyone else is more likely to follow suit.
If you’re a team member, be respectful. Try not to interrupt busy coworkers with ad hoc requests. If you have a question, try jotting it down for later and doing what you can with the info you have. Bundling small requests helps both you and your teammates be more organized.
6. Put away your task work during video meetings
This one is more relevant today than it was a few years ago, but seriously, don’t do other project work during meetings. Close the documents or windows. Unplug your keyboard if you have to. It can be so tempting if you’re not the one speaking, or if you have something urgent to deliver, but it usually causes more harm than good. It can be helpful to block time before meetings for prep work so that you’re not frantically pulling information together while someone else is presenting.
A Final Word on Multitasking
Getting multiple tasks done effectively within a tight timeframe is an art. Multitasking just won’t cut it when it comes down to efficiency and stress. If you’re like most people, you’ve tried it many times before. You’ve probably never come out of it feeling like you crushed it. Multitasking is awkward, disorienting, and usually leaves you feeling uncertain and tired. Do yourself a favor and spend the time to plan out your time.
Sometimes, using the right tools can be a key component of successfully managing lots of work. Software like LiquidPlanner allows you and your team to keep track of workload and priorities in real time across your entire portfolio of work. And, it schedules the work for you so that you have less thinking to do. Read more about it on the product page.