If you’re think you’re multitasking successfully, you’re probably wrong. For 98% of us, says Psychology Today, multitasking is an abject failure because our brains just aren’t wired to handle it. That’s right multitasking doesn’t work.
Except for the 2% of supertaskers, whose brains work better the more stuff they have to handle, multitasking turns our brains mush and productivity and effectiveness take a hit.
For the rest of us, trying to do more than one thing at the same time means we do everything less efficiently. The study cited in Psychology Today shows that most people who tried to drive safely behind a car that was braking intermittently while simultaneously following audio instructions eventually hit the car in front of them.
So when you’re checking email and social media while arranging meetings on the phone, the chances are you’re not working at optimal levels.
When you multitask you don’t give your full attention to anything. Instead of increasing effectiveness, multitasking just splits our time, and it can also be difficult for our brains to work out which tasks should take priority.
But sometimes you can’t escape from having to complete more than one task within a period. If that’s your issue, the answer is to fool your brain a little while continuing to work efficiently.
Here are some ways to achieve that so you get the benefits of achieving multiple tasks while keeping your brain working well. It’s not so much multitasking as serial single-tasking.
1. Establish a Routine
As I’ve said, multitaskers usually can’t focus on more than one thing at a time, but there are times when they can.
Think about your own life—you can probably brush your teeth while checking your hair in the mirror.
The secret is to make tasks routine. That means doing the same tasks at the same time and in the same order every day. This stops your brain from having to think too much about the task, freeing up those grey cells to focus on something else.
Here’s an example from my own business:
I’ve been using Inbox by Gmail. This sorts my email into categories, allowing me to batch process them, marking emails I need to save with a pushpin icon and sweeping those I don’t need to look at by clicking a checkmark icon.
Since I can now handle my email by rote, I can listen to videos or audio files at the same time, and I still remember what I’ve heard at the end.
Check out some routines from successful entrepreneurs for inspiration for creating a routine that works for you.
2. Batch Your Tasks
Even if you don’t have a routine, you can appear to multitask when you do batches of related tasks at the same time allowing your brain to move efficiently from one to the other.
Chefs often appear to be multitasking when what they’re actually doing is performing multiple related tasks in quick sequence. It’s probably the same in your kitchen, where you can keep an eye on a boiling saucepan while you chop vegetables and heat something in the microwave.
If you’re creating content for your business, like a blog post, the task of writing is broken down into mini-tasks that you perform in sequence: creating a title, writing an outline, doing research and drafting the article.
That’s a lot for your brain to handle but because they’re all related your brain will work efficiently as you move from one piece to another.
3. Prioritize Your Task List
If you want to be more efficient overall, it’s important to set priorities for your tasks.
Some of the most successful people limit the number of things they plan to accomplish each day, keeping their to-do lists short. Outline your task list the night before or at the start of the day and work out what the top 3-5 things are that you want to get done. Those are what you will focus on.
At the same time, create a list of items that require less focus so you can work on those when the time is right.
For example, if you have finished that big report, you can make a necessary phone call while you’re waiting for it to print.
4. Combine Different Types of Tasks
Another way to multitask is to combine completely different types of tasks.
Avoid putting yourself in danger like the people who shave, brush their teeth, or type on their laptop while driving, but, put tasks that work well together.
Many people can listen to the radio or catch up on podcasts while driving, but there are also good task combinations in other settings.
5. Avoid Distractions
There’s one final thing you have to do to make all the tips listed above work.
That’s to cut out anything that could distract you from what you really need to accomplish every day.
In my business, there’s a sharp difference in productivity between the days when I get straight to my task list and plow through it, and the days when I’m handling interruptions from phone calls and emails. Sure, you have to communicate with people, but that doesn’t mean you need to let communication tasks take priority.
Zappos CEO Tony Tsieh is an inspiration here.
He uses the “yesterbox” method to process email. The way it works is he archives everything automatically and only deals with emails from the previous 24 hours. That way he always knows how many emails he has to handle at the start of the day, and he’s still responsive enough to suit most people.
Best of all, he’s been liberated from the tyranny of the daily inbox check.
Another thing to avoid is those chats with co-workers that come out of nowhere, either around the watercooler or because someone happened to be passing by your cubicle. Around 45% of people say coworkers are even more distracting than email.
If you think you might be a supertasker, take this test and find out.
For the rest of us, follow the tips above to be more efficient and look like you’re multitasking, even if you really aren’t.
Are you an effective multitasker? What are your tips for success?