How to reduce your productivity by up to 40%

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You read correctly…reduce!  If you think you are multitasking you are probably not, unless you are part of the estimated 2.5%[1] of people, often called supertaskers, who possess the innate ability to productively carry out multiple tasks at the one time.

Yet, the fast pace of business and the speed at which people and their organisations expect things to progress and change cause some to think multitasking is the answer.  Over the last few weeks, as people return to work from summer holidays, I’m noticing statements  pop up in conversations such as ”I have so much to catch up on I’ll have to find better ways of multitasking”.

For the majority of people who think they are multitasking they are more likely task switching or just doing a whole bunch of things in quick succession.  In fact, available research[2]suggests that by trying to multitask you could actually be reducing your productivity by up to 40%.  David Strayer [3] a psychology professor from University of Utah found that each time people tried to keep primary focus on more than thing at a time performance suffered.

Consider one of Strayers more chilling examples in his 10 year study of people using mobile phones while driving.  He and his colleagues observed 56,000 people approaching an intersection and found that those on a mobile phone were more than twice as likely to fail to heed the stop sign.

For the record, you take your eyes off the road for two seconds at 60kph and you have travelled the length of a cricket pitch. I digress.

Bringing focus back to a work context; if you are attempting multitasking then how much are you really comprehending?  Are you asking the right questions?  Are you giving yourself the time to think critically about the options and potential solutions?  Most importantly, what will be the quality of the decision you ultimately make?

When you are attempting multitasking you are not fulling engaging with all the information and there comes a point where you have to play “catch-up” wasting time asking questions to clarify the situation or back tracking on information that has already been covered that you missed.

The answer?   Become a mono-tasker.  If you want to be more productive place primary focus on one major task at a time.  Moving from multi to mono-tasking is challenging: multitasking is seductive because you have a sense you are getting so much done.

Here are a few things you can try:

  • As you switch to a single task focus try applying the “power of 10”. I am indebted to Dr Stephanie Burns, a great teacher, for this insight.  Allocate 10 minutes to put primary focus on the task.  Set a timer for 10 minutes, work on that task and do not stop until the timer signals time’s up.  You’ll be amazed at the quality and the quantity of what you achieve.  These days I think it’s called the Pomodoro technique after the app of the same name.
  • Give the situation your full attention. Be present, reduce diversions, put your mobile on silent, close your laptop, etc.
  • Be selective about what you become involved in, be that a meeting or a project. The busier you become the more discerning you have to be.
  • In meetings reset expectations around behaviour to minimise interruptions, for example put a basket in the middle of the table and ask people to turn their mobiles to silent and put them in the basket.

I will leave you with one thought: when next you go to your dentist and you lay back in the chair, imagine the outcome for you if he or she attempted to multitask while doing a root canal procedure on you.


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