Some people believe that, to be truly productive at their jobs, they need to multitask. However, in reality, this approach hurts their productivity.

For multitasking to happen, one of these conditions needs to be met:

  1. One of the tasks needs to be so well learned that it doesn’t require conscious attention (such as walking). However, this can still create problems - driving and talking on the phone, for example, can lead to an accident.
  2. The tasks need to engage different parts of the brain (e.g. reading and listening to instrumental music).

In all other cases, multitasking is just an illusion. What happens instead is task switching, which can be really expensive:

  1. Switching between tasks requires a context shift, which takes time.
  2. Making a mistake is more likely.

Some people swear by multitasking, but ironically, in reality, heavy multitaskers are worse at it.

Here’s a good exercise you can try (credit goes to Nancy Napier Ph.D.):

  1. Take a piece of paper and draw two horizontal lines on it.
  2. Have someone time you while you write the following sentence on the first line “I am a great multitasker”, and write numbers 1-20 on the second line.
  3. Now take another piece of paper and draw two horizontal lines again, and have that person time you while you’re switching between writing the sentence and the numbers. Write the first letter, “I”, and then the first number, “1”, then the second letter and the second number, and so on.

What were your times? The multitasking condition probably took significantly more time, maybe even double as much.

So how can you apply this at your workplace? Here are a few tips:

  • Give your full attention to the task at hand. Resist the temptation to switch tasks.
  • Disable all notifications when trying to focus.
  • Try to get in the flow state.
  • Use the right communication medium when communicating with others.
  • Block off time to get work done (schedule it in advance and put it on your calendar) and/or use Pomodoro technique.