How the science behind multitasking can make you productive

You’ve probably heard that multitasking is a problem and that it doesn’t work. So why do we keep doing it so often?

Because according to Zheng Wang assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University, it makes us emotionally satisfied even if it makes us less productive.

So how can we be more productive?

By understanding the the science behind multitasking, its impact and implications to create better processes to mitigate the negative effects.

Multitasking is really going back and forth between two or more tasks Click To Tweet

Why it is a problem?

  • According to Dr. Susan Weinschenk when multi-tasking you aren’t doing two things at the same time. But rather rapidly going back and forth between them.
  • It is this switching process that is mentally taxing. Your brain has to recall instructions for how to do one task. Put it aside as it retrieves that for another task and repeat the process. This generally results in poor performance.
  • A study from the University of Sussex shows that constant multitasking can damage your brain. People who multi-task were found to have lower grey matter density in an area of the brain that handles empathy, emotional control and cognitive control.
  • Our brains are not able to cope with focusing on many tasks at once. Forcing it to do so can be quite detrimental. It leads to high levels of stress and short term memory loss.
  • Studies show that we reduce our productivity by as much as 40% when multitasking.
  • Researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London found that multitasking with electronic media caused a decrease in IQ greater than smoking pot or losing a night’s sleep.
  • Another downside to multitasking is poor quality work. In fact the National Bureau of Economic Research found that multitasking reduces worker performance. It also makes projects last longer.
  • Studies show that when you multitask you also lose the ability to remember what you were doing and cannot learn as much.
  • Scientist Harold Pashler showed that when people do two cognitive tasks at once, their cognitive capacity can drop from that of a Harvard MBA to that of an eight-year-old.
Multitasking damages your brain and makes you dumber Click To Tweet

How to use science to become more productive

What we can take-away from the science is this. Multi-tasking is inefficient and harmful to your health. We would be better off doing just one task and moving on to another when we are done with the first. This is sometimes referred to as single-tasking.

Tweetable: Research shows multi-tasking reduces worker performance and makes projects last longer.

A lot of the advice on being productive comes down to time management. Which is why understanding the problems backed by science is important to getting back on track.

James Clear is someone who understands the problem only too well. He has committed himself to tackling one task at a time. What has this single task focus achieved for James?

James has stuck to a schedule of writing an article on Mondays and Thursdays for almost three years. An article which he publishes that same day on . This has resulted in:

  • 200+ published articles on his site
  • Nearly 200,000 email subscribers
  • Over 500,000 visitors a month to his site.

So the solution to being more productive would lie in single tasking.

But how do we use that?

Consider changing your environment so that you are not relying on willpower but rather focused on accomplishing the next one thing you need to do.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Start with yourself

1. Keep a checklist

Why keep a checklist or a catch all for your thoughts?

Have you had this experience before?

You are trying to focus on the task in front of you, but your mind goes off for a wander.

You need to get those thoughts out of your head.

So if you have thoughts you need to capture, enter them into a tool like Evernote. If on the other hand there are tasks that need to be captured then enter it somewhere like Trello.

2. Minimize the paradox of choice

In his book “The Paradox of Choice” Barry Schwartz says that eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety and makes for easier decision making for shoppers. This same thing can affect us with daily choices we have to make. For example – what do I wear today? What do I eat for breakfast?

Why is this important? Because if you pre-determine the outcome of these decisions it reduces decision fatigue and conserves our willpower. According to research we all have a reservoir of will and discipline that gets depleted each time we make a decision.
This in turn means we have more willpower for important decisions.

You need to focus your decision-making energy. @BarackObama Click To Tweet You need to routinize yourself. You can't be going through the day distracted by trivia. @BarackObama Click To Tweet

In an interview with Vanity Fair he says

‘You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits’ [Obama] said.

‘I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.’

It’s the same reason Mark Zuckerburg typically wears a grey t-shirt with a black hoody and jeans when in public.

3. Make things automatic

How do you get more things done? Make some tasks automatic so it takes up less willpower and energy.

So invest in creating rituals or highly specific behaviors done at precise times so that they become automatic and do not require conscious will or discipline. For example you could automate tasks with Trello and Zapier like we do at WP Curve.

4. Be aware of how you move

Research in the area of embodied cognition says that the way we sit, stand and move affects how we think and behave. So take time to exercise and improve your posture.

5. Shift into high gear

Research shows that the perception of progress is enough to convince people to shift into a higher work mindset. So create goals that enable you to do this and track your progress.

For example consider knocking off a few items on your to do list for the day.

Let’s say your to do list for the day looked something like this.

  • Making a call to reschedule a flight.
  • Sending off a quick reply to an email.
  • Confirming your attendance to an upcoming meeting and publishing a post.
  • Outline an article
  • Draft an article.
  • Proofread an article.

And let’s say you completed the first three in the first half hour of your work time. Now that you have completed these tasks quite quickly, chances are that you will be more focused on the next few tasks. Why?

Because completing your to do list for the day seems to be more easily achievable.

6. Clarity leads to direction

Broad questions we ask of ourselves like – what should I do with my life? Will I ever achieve my desired work life balance? … do not help clarify the direction you should take or the next step you need to take.

If you think only about what you want, then you’ll end up confused or frustrated with lukewarm results. But if you have a direction to move towards, your choices will become obvious. Matthew Michalewicz talks about how he uses the Goal Pyramid to give clarity over tasks in this video.

7. JDI

JDI stands for Just Do It.

Procrastinating can be crippling. The solution that James Clear uses is the 2-min rule.

Just set a timer for two minutes and force yourself to get on with the task for at least two minutes. Why because once you get started, it is much easier to keep going.
This isn’t about the results you will achieve. The focus is on taking action from which the rest will flow.

8. Get perspective on what you are doing

I’ll leave it to Steve Jobs to fill you in-

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life…

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered - Steve Jobs Click To Tweet

9. Get some sleep

An article in the New York Times reported on a study that showed that those who got eight hours of sleep performed better. They hardly had any attention lapses and cognitive declines. Whereas those who slept only four hours and six hours had results that declined with each passing day. In fact at the end of 2 weeks of study those who had only slept six hours a day had been sleep deprived for 24 hours. Cognitively speaking it is the same as being legally drunk.

Clear your work environment

1. Keep a clean desk

Pick up every single piece of paper and item on your desk and ask yourself if this is helping to do the work I want to do?

If the answer is no then store/file it elsewhere, action it immediately, delegate or put it in the trash. This also goes for things like pens, paper clips etc which can be stored neatly in a drawer.

2. Change your work location

If the location you work in doesn’t help you focus go someplace that works for you. For some it may be a coffee shop for others an empty meeting room or kitchen. Pick a location that helps you focus.

3. Add light

Try and ensure you work in a place with the best natural light. Poor lighting can cause eyestrain, blurred vision and headaches. None of which make for a productive work environment. Proper natural light can keep you energized. If that isn’t an option then use light fixtures with adjustable filters.

4. Remove obvious distractions

Removed all the clutter from your desk? Great. Now address other areas. There may be things on the wall and in your immediate surroundings that can be cleared away as well. Ask yourself – does this need to be in view? If not put it away or get rid of it.

Also do the same for your computer desktop as well.

Optimize your computer

1. Keep out distractions

Find yourself slipping into that social media blackhole instead of completing the monthly report? A tool like SelfControl or Freedom may be just what you need. Set if for a time period of your choosing and your browser will act as if it is offline during that time.

2. Do not use multiple tabs

This may sound simple and counterintuitive. But think about how many tabs are related to the task at hand and how many are distractions. Start with just one tab and open others as need be.

3. Schedule meetings and reduce email clutter

Calendly is a free tool and takes a lot of the hassle of scheduling meetings out of your email inbox. You get to set meetings at times that suit both parties. With Calendly you can synch those appointments with your calendar too.

The free version of Calendly only allows you to set one type of event. You can customize the event to any length, add instructions, availability etc. You then get a custom URL which you can send to people to schedule a meeting.

4. Use inbox zero

Inbox zero is an approach to managing email aimed at keeping the inbox empty or close to empty at all times. Merlin Mann a productivity expert developed the concept. You can watch the video of him going into the details of the concept.

5. Track your time usage

Do you know how you spend your time while on your computer? Track this for a week using the app RescueTime to get the details. The results could surprise you. When you review your log, look for hours that you use poorly and work out ways to be more efficient.

rescue time dashboard

6. Don’t read

Inevitably you will come across articles that peek your interest or you believe are worth learning from.

Use the Evernote Web Clipper or to save the article, add a few tags for your easy reference. You can come back to it later when you have the time to read.

Tip: Save everything that is not an article as a bookmark like apps, deal sites etc.

7. Keep your desktop clear

We touched on this earlier but is worth looking at again. Your desktop is a digital version of your desk. It’s no better to have a cluttered desktop than it is to have a messy desk.

Put all files and folders into a logical sequence and location that works for you. Alternatively at the very least you can create a new folder marked everything and drop it in there. You can sort them out later.

8. Clean out your toolbar

Chances are you may have neglected your dock or toolbar and it has a lot more than you need. Like the one you see below

Clean it out. The only things that need appear in the toolbar are the ones you are currently working on.

busy dock

9. Take a web break

A study shows that those who took a ten minute break from the internet after a tedious task were 16% more productive. So be sure to include web breaks in your day.

Consider using the Pomodoro technique which is a time management technique that is geared towards helping the user get more focused and creative with the tasks at hand, thereby allowing them to complete projects sooner with less mental fatigue.

It works by breaking up your work into intervals of 25 minutes called a pomodoro with a five minute break between each interval. The intervals are known as pomodoros.

Optimize your phone

1. Turn your phone off or at least keep it silent

A ringing or vibrating phone is an annoyance.

So how do you stop this annoyance? Go into your phone’s settings and turn off ringtones and vibration unless someone really important needs to get in touch with you. Alternatively just use the power button. Phones do turn off.

Another idea is to leave it in your bag or in another room while you work. If your phone is silent and not nearby it won’t bother you and you are less inclined to keep checking it.

2. Remove all apps on your home screen

Does the home screen on your phone look something like this? (Image Source)

iphone home screen

Why do this – because on first glance there is nothing that beckons you to investigate.

You actually need to think about what you want to do when you look at your phone’s screen. In other words you need to form an intention, before swiping to find your apps.

Dan uses a variation of this. He does it by making sure there are no notifications on the apps on his phone.

dan norris home screen

3. Turn off notifications

What is the biggest distractions from your phone? Apps like WhatsApp, WeChat and push notifications? Go into your settings and turn off notifications and push messages on all your apps.

Still need to be in contact with family and a select group of friends? Then get them to message you via a separate channel like iMessages.

Consider how you deal with other people

1. Wear headphones

Have you notice that people are ensconced in their headphones as they commute. Conversations between commuters hardly seem to occur.

While this may seem anti-social you can use this same tactic if you are in an environment where others are likely to interrupt you. Or if distractions are aplenty like in a coffee shop. With your headphones on people are likely to think you can’t hear them. Hence less likely to disturb you.

2. Educate people you work with

Chances are people come to you with all sorts of requests. From the mundane, to things that don’t concern you and everything in between.

How do you stop that? Educate them. After all you set the expectation that they could interrupt you whenever they feel like.

Do you get people asking you for favors or for help on an ongoing basis? Do you find yourself agreeing to most of them?

It’s time to be thriftier with your time. A quick but easy way to buy some time to evaluate the request is to say – I’ll have to check. It also allows you to transition to saying no.

Think about the request, what it really means for you now and in the future before deciding.

Use the do it now evaluation

If a task takes less than 2 mins, do it now. For example you may be asked for an address, to send a document, look up an email address or phone number etc.

Anything that takes longer than 2 mins can be looked at later or turned down if it has nothing to do with your work or role.

Now focus…

So there you have it the science says multi-tasking is not all that it is cracked up to be. If you are prone to multitasking you may want to reconsider this habit. Apart from the health disadvantages it only exacerbates a lack of emotional intelligence and problems with concentration and attention to detail.

What strategies do you use to get more done without the stress?


Vinay is the content marketing manager for WP Curve. Follow him @wpcurve

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