Most of us like to think of ourselves as wickedly effective at multitasking. We believe that we can whip back and forth between tasks and get a wide wrath of things done in just a fraction of the time as pillars of freaking productivity.
But a study by the New York Times – published a whole two years ago – suggests that multitasking may not be all that its cracked up to be. In fact, it might be killing your productivity.
The study found that on average, it takes most people 25 minutes to refocus on a task after being interrupted. Worse, the study also found that a typical office worker only gets around 11 minutes of time between each interruption.
Do the math.
The interruptions that we face, even if they are self-induced under the guise of multitasking, may be killing our productivity and we don’t even know it.
Related: This NPR study suggests that very few of us actually “multitask”.
And it got me thinking – after all, I’m a fucking great multitasker. I can swing from a pendulum Tarzan-style and tear through multiple tasks at once – that’s how I work smart, after all. Effortlessly getting several things done at once. Totally kicking productivity’s ass.
Wait – actually, that’s a lie. I don’t know the exact moment, but I realized some time ago that I totally suck at trying to tackle multiple tasks at the same time, or quickly going back and forth between tasks in the hopes of getting more done in the same amount of time.
It just didn’t work for me. And if you believe this study, it probably doesn’t work for most people, either. Specifically, it found a 20% reduction in cognitive abilities when interruptions occur.
While it is true that the interruptions in this study were caused by an external force rather than participants willingly distracting themselves by focusing on multiple tasks at once, there is wisdom to be taken from this study.
In general, we suck at performing a task unless we focus entirely on that task.
Think about it. How many times have you muttered to yourself under your breath, “Okay, now where was I…?” as you settled back into whatever you had previously started? How many times have you accidentally redone a portion of that task that you had already completed and simply forgotten about? Or researched information that you had already found? Or review data that you already knew?
It happens…to all of us. While each of us are different, for most people it takes time to get fully engaged in each task that we do, and our brains are hard-wired to do a single task at a time, and do it well. People are most efficient when they focus on one thing at a time.
We are short-changing ourselves when we bounce from one task to the next without giving our brains the time to fully engage in whatever we are doing.
What is one of the most prevalent sources of interruptions in the work place? Email.
An email comes in, and like kids anxiously awaiting permission to tear into their birthday gifts, we generally want to know who just sent us that email with great anticipation. After all, “it might be important”.
At least for me, nine times out of 10, the email isn’t all that important. In fact, it wasn’t even directed at me, but I happened to be on the distribution list that it was sent to. Great, now to refocus on whatever I was doing.
But it’s worse when we actually engage ourselves in that message. If we do choose to respond, we take the time to shift our minds to that email, talk to this person or that person, write a reply, proof read it if we’re being careful, press send and hope that everything will turn out okay.
By the time all that’s done, we have completely lost focus on the task we were doing before the email came in. An average of 25 minutes later, we’re back to where we were before the email interruption.
But, what if we anticipate distractions?
A bright spot in this study is actually quite fascinating. We tend to be more productive when we anticipate distractions because we mentally focus more effectively on our task than if we anticipate no distractions. We do this by squeezing more productive work into the time that we spend on the task – but still – only if we focus on one task at a time.
“I gotta get this done before the 10am meeting!” – A phrase I’ve uttered many-a-time in my working career, and it does tend to make me more focused on the task at hand. And guess what? I usually ignore email and other distractions after I give myself that mental deadline.
Anticipating distractions is a positive psychological element to productivity. Who knew?
Do you like to multitask? Are there techniques that you use to lessen the “refocus” time when you return to an incomplete task?
Steve is a 38-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.