“Focus does not mean saying yes, it means saying no.” — Steve Jobs
Quick: How many web browser tabs do you have open right now? When was the last time you closed all of your tabs?
If you're juggling lots of tasks, then you probably know all too well what it’s like to fear closing all those websites or apps. You probably spend a lot of time switching between your research, email and everything else you need to accomplish in hopes that doing multiple things at once will increase your efficiency. But the truth is it’s doing you no favors.
First of all, task switching — or what you might think of as multitasking — isn’t really the human brain’s strong suit. Very rarely are you ever truly performing multiple tasks at once (one study found that only about 2.5% of people are truly able to multitask). Instead, you’re more likely to be switching off between two or more tasks in rapid succession.
“The more we multitask, the less we actually accomplish, because we slowly lose our ability to focus enough to learn,” says neuropsychologist Dr. Cynthia Kubu. “If we’re constantly attempting to multitask, we don’t practice tuning out the rest of the word to engage in deeper processing and learning.”
That deep engagement is key to a lot of what we want to accomplish. Interrupting your creative process or intense concentration with another task means you’re not fully investing your attention to any one thing and all of your work will suffer.
“I also argue that it’s bad for innovation,” Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California at Irvine who studies task switching, told the New York Times. “Ten and a half minutes on one project is not enough time to think in-depth about anything.”
It can be kind of jarring how much of an effect spreading our attention across a few tasks can have on our work. In one study, Mark found that people who are interrupted 20 minutes into a task report higher stress and frustration levels.
Scientists now believe that the inability to truly multitask was probably a result of evolution and early humans being pretty vulnerable. Only focusing on one task at a time meant a lesser chance of miscalculating something very important. Even now, through brain scans, researchers can see that doing a lot of small (even if easy) tasks can become overwhelming.
Of course, busy lives and powerful technology (how many emails have you gotten in the time you started reading this?) means task switching is nearly unavoidable, but there are ways to mitigate it so you can get the most out of your work. Below are a few ways you can avoid task switching so you can better focus and boost your productivity.
Your day is filled with dozens of different tasks (if not more), some of them small and mindless. It’s tempting to squeeze them in whenever you can throughout the day. Email is the perfect example for this. When you see a notification flash across your screen, do you immediately open it? Even if you’re in the middle of work? It’s so hard not to.
Instead of letting little tasks — or tasks that don’t take up too much of your time — interrupt you when you really need to commit to deep focus, try integrating time blocking into your workflow.
It works like this: Instead of building your schedule hour by hour, take the most important tasks and build around them. It’s really easy to do with the Ink+Volt 2021 Planner, which was designed with time blocking in mind. Think about brainstorming, replying to emails or finishing up reports as one task, instead of setting an event-filled schedule and trying to find time for everything else. Avoiding a fragmented schedule will help you buckle down and focus on one thing at a time.
The Dashboard pad goes even further and helps the super busy group keep tasks straight. Each project get its own list, so you’ll never have to wonder the best way to start blocking your time.
Focusing on one singular task at a time isn’t always the most feasible option. Life happens fast! Instead, try to group similar tasks together. Lumping tasks that are alike will help you conserve energy and resources. For example: you may want to work on planning several different content calendars at a time or getting through all of your web work in one sitting. If you have several different tasks in one application, at one location or somehow are connected, try lumping them together.
Task grouping is all about working smarter, not harder. You may not be able to avoid task switching all together, but it’ll be less disruptive if your brain doesn’t have to completely shift gears constantly.
When letting things fall through the cracks, which often happens when we’re super busy, is not an option, delegation is the next best thing. If you’re working on a team, practice relying on others so that you can get more out of your work. It helps you to eliminate tasks that bog you down, and it can help your colleague to learn a new skill. Delegation can be a pretty intimidating thing to take on, but once you allow yourself to ask for help, it can get easier.
Delegation can also take on different forms, like asking a manager for help lightening your load or employing a service to take on some of your duties (like cleaning, or transcribing an interview). Think outside of the box, especially on tedious tasks. A little help can go a long way.
Practice selective attention
It can be difficult to devote your attention to one task, especially in a busy world full of push notifications and constant communication. Shutting down certain stimulants, like email alerts, will help force your brain from wondering and task switching when it shouldn’t.
Try to limit the number of things that are competing for your attention. That might be as simple as closing the door so a colleague can’t stop in to ask for help when you’re on a tight deadline. Moving your phone to a different room will prevent you from getting distracted.
Task switching thrives when there are a bevy of different tasks to jump to, but if you design your work time so that doesn’t happen, you’ll be more likely to focus your energy into one thing.