Can We Multitask? Switching Tasks Can Be Productivity Masking

Multitasking is a practice that contributes to becoming overwhelmed and burnt out. It’s something you and I have struggled with at some point in our lives. After reading Greg Mckeown’s best-selling book “Essentialism”, my understanding of multitasking has shifted. I initially viewed it as a way to get things done more efficiently, although not necessarily as effective. I’ve realized that multitasking occurs consciously or subconsciously, used as a way to mask our productivity, meaning we simultaneously attempt a secondary task to think we are getting more things done. It can hide the fact we aren’t achieving much at all, where there’s a difference between how it feels and what actually is. A simple switch of a task may be required at that moment, but we should never have more than one priority to focus on at any given time.


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A Multitasking Example


A gym receptionist simultaneously answers the phone and greets a customer, which their employer considers a multitasking skill. The customer who is looking to cancel their membership, considers the employee rude because they have answered the phone while waiting to be served. At that same time, the person on the phone recognizes the employee’s full attention is not on the phone call, causing unsettled emotion.

Is the priority to help the person on the phone, or is it to help the customer at the desk? Having more than one priority and trying to work between the two simultaneously increases the opportunity of errors, distractions and costs. The build-up effect over time from consistently switching priorities becomes evident as the employee becomes burnt out, stressed and overwhelmed.

The truth is, it is possible to do two things at once. We can reply to an email and watch TV or talk on the phone and prepare dinner. What’s impossible is the ability to concentrate on two tasks simultaneously to the fullest extent. Multitasking forces us to switch hemispheres in our brain. Each time we change from one task to the next, our brain pays a mental tax, resulting in a decline in performance because of an attention shift.

Whether the tasks we do are from expectation of an employer or what’s required at home, we can reduce our priorities and create a non-negotiable to achieve effective performance. 


Non-Negotiable Priority


Being busy doesn’t drive performance. Being effective is what produces supreme value, which comes from how you spend your time. I still struggle with my focus and attention, where I’m continually learning to seek optimal focus in my writing. I don’t believe we can be 100% attentive to anything and everything we do. Still, we can implement a non-negotiable priority each day to achieve desired results. For example, in the area of writing, my non-negotiable priorities are:

Monday: Send out an email

Tuesday: Write an article

Wednesday: Work on book

Thursday: Write an article

Friday: Send out an email

Saturday: OFF

Sunday: OFF

Although there are other tasks I plan to do during the day, like editing or writing more content, I’m naturally forced to design my life around it by choosing one priority. My mind has already decided what’s urgent. Here are some other examples:

Professional football player

Monday: Recovery

Tuesday: Skills training

Wednesday: Strength training

Thursday: Running

Friday: Light training

Saturday: Gameday

Sunday: Rest


Monday: Create content

Tuesday: Meetings

Wednesday: Making calls

Thursday: Marketing

Friday: Meeting with the team

Saturday: OFF

Sunday: OFF

Multitasking is everywhere because we often feel like we’re juggling many different activities to meet time demands, both at work and at home. The reality means we’re not cutting time; we’re adding to it. Every time we switch tasks, it takes on average twenty-three minutes to regain complete focus. Multiply this throughout your day, and there you have it: Stress, burnout and overwhelm. One of the best strategies to overcome this is to find time for uninterrupted work. Work around your anchor priority and do it at a time and location that helps you perform at your peak, with no distractions.


Where Multitasking Works


Some tasks work with others because we can process information from two non-competing stimuli:

-Listening to music while working out

-Talking to a stranger while waiting in a line.

-Drinking coffee while talking with a friend.

-Eating popcorn while watching a movie.

While other tasks don’t mix that well together:

-Texting while driving

-Emailing someone while on the phone

-Watching television while writing

-Listening to lyrical songs while reading

The tasks that work well together require different brain areas, which exert a minimal amount of focus. When we have the same areas of our brain trying to maintain full focus, they compete for each other’s attention, resulting in reduced performance. The tasks we can mix together use different parts of the brain.


The Tradeoffs


We can’t say for sure whether multitasking is good or bad. A mother taking care of their child will multitask daily, like an office worker in front of a computer screen. How your productivity is affected comes from the features of task 1 + 2 and how task 1 + 2 interact with each other. When it’s essential to do the primary task well (our number one priority), we must be aware of the tradeoffs and switching costs. When tasks are not of high importance, we can be more relaxed about the costs and be more open to the satisfaction multitasking brings.


Some Useful Strategies


Busyness and working overtime are consistent with assuming meaning in our lives, where we believe being busy drives our career and success. From my thoughts and experience, I think having meaning is contributing value to the world. It understands the priorities where you say yes to being full and not being busy creates purpose. I’ve put together a couple of valuable strategies that have helped me understand my priorities and focus on contributing value.


Strategy #1: Multitask Management

Continually switching focus reduces our memory recall. Think of your brain as you would a computer. When many programs are open, the battery reduces, and the computer’s memory is high. There’s an increased chance it would freeze, resulting in a restart, losing the data you had. The same thing happens in our brain. When we perform multiple tasks that require our full attention, the brain overloads, where it can only process information from one channel at a time. If a job requires ultimate attention, multitasking will only increase the chances of error and reduced memory recall.


Strategy #2: Less Stress

As multitasking is part of the world we live in, we need to learn how to maintain our highest mental function level to become effective and productive. Slowing down and working to an adequate level of performance that doesn’t create stress and overwhelm is critical in success in the areas we choose to focus on, whether in the workplace or personal life.


Strategy#3: Plan Ahead

Every night before you go to sleep, write down a list of the top six tasks, ranking them of importance to do the following day. When you wake up in the morning, the visual cue helps your brain adapt to the level of focus required for that task. This strategy is known as the Ivy Lee Method, where you are already prioritizing and preparing for the following day. It reduces the distractions and ability to multitask, where practicing is what makes this strategy effective.


Can We Multitask? Remember This


So can we multitask? The short answer is yes. We can’t get rid of multitasking, and it does have its place in our lives, whether in the workplace or at home. But by asking ourselves if we are contributing value and being effective in actioning our priorities, we can start to understand if our multitasking habits mask our productivity. The next time you catch yourself switching between tasks that increase stress and inefficiency, remember that what you’re doing can disguise how well you perform in a given area.  

I’ve put together a productivity and efficiency guide to maximize your productivity. It will help give you the tools to manage your time effectively and produce great work.