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Multitasking and the Brain: The War on Productivity

As tasks continue to pile up in my already hectic schedule, I have little choice but to jam more and more activities into the same crowded time spans. The morning commute, a once luxurious gap in time, seems to be increasingly plugged by business calls, urgent text messages and, in some cases, even the morning shave.

Though I try to keep work and hygiene off the road, in the office I frequently find myself checking email while conversing on the phone or scanning the news as I go through a business report.

Mounting evidence suggests, however, that multitasking places a significant damper on productivity. Though we may feel as if we’re getting more accomplished on an hourly basis, we’re in fact hampering performance and lowering our output quality along the way. While we all know that texting or applying makeup inhibits driving ability, not everyone is cognizant of the detrimental effects that multitasking has in the workplace.

Two at a Time

A 2010 report in the journal Science confronted this issue by examining precisely how the human brain handles multiple simultaneous activities.

The report revealed that when a person performs a task, the goal-oriented areas of both frontal lobes become active. When a second task is added, the two lobes divide responsibility between the separate objectives, with each hemisphere claiming its own task. While both lobes can work collaboratively to accomplish an independent task, the lobes must divide to accomplish anything more fragmented.

The limiting factor here is that humans only possess two frontal lobes, capping the potential number of simultaneous tasks at a low two. So, when a third task is thrown into the mix, it has no choice but to replace one of the initial tasks.

This research suggests that to a point, humans are capable of balancing multiple simultaneous tasks — but this point is much lower than we often demand, covering just two fundamental activities. Though it may be possible to write an email and keep track of the time at the same time, one of the initial tasks must be abandoned if further cognitive effort is required. If checking the time leads to thinking about the weekend, for example, one of the initial trains of thought must be abandoned.

Our ability to multitask is limited by our cranial capacity, and yet today it seems that people depend on this ability to get things accomplished. So how does this practice affect our ability to perform in the workplace? In an NPR interview in 2009, Stanford Professor Clifford Nass reported that “multitasking, especially among those who do it the most, is at the very least ineffective and at the worst, harmful.”

It turns out that the more people multitask, the worse they become at handling individual tasks. The ability to ignore irrelevant information and filter out bits that don’t matter disappears, and they grow increasingly incapable of blocking out unnecessary stimuli.

What can we do to combat this common occurrence? Even now, you may be reading this article as you’re compiling a report, or perhaps you’ve been glancing over at your in-box every few sentences to see if anything has come in.

Multitasking seems an unavoidable aspect of today’s world; yet with a bit of dedication and practiced time management, anyone can be saved from this time killer. Following are a couple of practices that may help you remain focused on your work and save you from developing irreversible multitasking habits.

Try Timeboxing

Effectively navigating the eight-hour workday is an acquired talent. Lengthy stretches of time can inspire both trepidation and lackadaisicalness, and it’s easy to leave at the end of a work period without any solid notion of what you completed in the preceding hours.

To make the most of long stretches of time, it helps to plan out events before you begin. When you’re armed with a clear image of what needs to be accomplished and the time allotted for each activity, your actual productivity will no longer be in jeopardy.

Timeboxing is built upon time allocation prior to performance. Before initiating work for the day or jumping into a new project, a timeboxing practitioner decides on the tasks to be completed and determines reasonable time estimates to accomplish each objective. The planning stage is followed by a period of uninterrupted work dedicated toward clearly established goals.

Timeboxing not only helps you work for uninterrupted chunks of time, but also keeps you aware of actual time investments toward end objectives. Even moderate perfectionists can spend hours modifying a short article, and an examination of time use after completion may help you realize that your time could have been better spent.

The Pomodoro Technique

Similar to timeboxing, Pomodoro is a method for planning out short, uninterrupted increments of work. By working in 25-minute increments followed by brief breaks, you experience both undisturbed periods of work, and chunks of time designed to let you relax and clear your mind.

The key to the Pomodoro technique is that during each Pomodoro, you completely apply yourself to the task at hand. Close your email for 25 minutes, put away your phone, and focus your attention on the single task before you.

This allows you to work productively for extended periods, letting you really get into the swing of things without constant interruptions derailing your progress. By staying on top of your performance, you’ll be able to minimize instances of multitasking and boost your productivity.

The added benefit of this approach is that after each short-lived Pomodoro, you can modify your daily schedule based upon the amount of work you’ve already completed and your expectations for the future. By segmenting your day into numerous Pomodoros, you develop a much clearer image of your time investments for each task.

Keep an Active To-Do List

The importance of a well-maintained to-do list cannot be overstated. This simple organizational tool will not only ensure that you remember to complete all of your tasks, but will save you from switching between objectives while you’re hard at work.

By maintaining an active to-do list, you can constantly dump ideas onto your list as you think of them. Just remembered you have to RSVP to the wedding by the end of the week? Don’t rush off and put the letter in the mail, just jot it down on your list and mark it according to its priority.

By prioritizing tasks, setting out weekly goals, and adding tasks — no matter how long or involved they may be — you can plan for every day and always tackle those tasks that are most pressing or key to later steps. Know your time, know your tasks, and plan accordingly.

Though multitasking may always prove tempting, allowing it to creep into your work routine will impair your ability to get things done. By managing your time, sectioning off tasks, and putting your head down for uninterrupted sessions, you’ll be able to get work done more efficiently and with better results.

Perhaps it’s time to take a break from your email for a bit, silence Twitter, and put off watching that YouTube video until you have a moment to spare. Plan your time accordingly and you can give all of these activities the attention they deserve.

Bill Balcezak is the general manager of the time division for Journyx, a provider of Web-based time-tracking, project accounting and resource management solutions. He can be reached at [email protected].

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