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Can You Multitask?

Woman smiling and shaking employee hand

Many people pride themselves on their ability to multitask or deal with more than one task simultaneously. I know I did. When people asked what I considered to be a strength, my response was, " Multitasking.”  

We start our days with a long list of tasks and are short on time, so we work on projects while participating in remote meetings or answering emails at the same time.  

Technology might make multitasking more appealing, but most people are terrible at it. Our brains are not wired to focus on multiple tasks at a time.  

The multitasking myth 

In an interview with NPR’s Morning Edition, neuroscientist Earl Miller said, “For the most part, we simply can't focus on more than one thing at a time. What we can do is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed.” 

This made me think, am I really a great multitasker? When I started looking at my day and pulling apart how I work and my multitasking abilities, I realized I wasn’t working as efficiently as I thought. And it’s not just me. 

"Switching from task to task,” Miller says, “you think you're actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you're actually not."  

So, I decided to put this to the test. One day, while working on two different projects at once, I realized it was taking me longer than if I set aside time for each project and focused on one at a time. When trying to focus on two projects simultaneously, I have to redo work, lose my thought process, and sometimes think I am done with one project but realize I forgot a critical element. This helped me re-evaluate my working habits. 

5 tips to improve productivity without multitasking 

Here are five tips I learned to become more efficient and forget about multitasking altogether.  

Prioritize your day 

Take five minutes in the morning to look at what you need to accomplish for the day and prioritize your tasks, so you know exactly what you need to accomplish and how much time you have. 

Prioritizing your to-do list helps you better manage and guard your time. When a colleague needs help, you can confidently tell them, “I cannot complete that by the end of the day, but I can have it to you tomorrow by noon.” This will help you establish deadlines more effectively and set expectations with your team.  

Focus on one task at a time 

If you have five projects to work on, block off time for each and focus on doing one thing at a time. Use the list you created to prioritize what needs to be done first.  

Don’t move on from one project to the next until your first project is complete.  

Shut down the distractions 

Technology is a huge asset; it allows us to work anywhere, at any time. But it can also be distracting. 

When you need to focus on a project, close your email, turn off your phone or put it on “do not disturb." Close your door, and put away anything that can distract you.  

Set up time to check your email 

Email is one of my biggest struggles when trying to focus. I like to keep my inbox low and get back to people quickly. Blocking out time to work on emails has been a huge help to me. I deal with my inbox first thing when I start my workday, after lunch and right before the end of the day. Having time dedicated only to email helps me not feel like I need to drop everything and answer right away.  

A very small fraction of the emails we receive each day are urgent. Chances are, if someone needs something from you that quickly, they’ll find another way to contact you. 

Be present  

Have you ever been on a conference call and were asked to repeat a question you asked? You know the other person’s attention was elsewhere, and they were not focusing on the call.  

Being present is tricky. We all have tasks we need to complete, and it feels like there’s never enough time. But be present with what you are working on and when working with others. This means not checking emails in meetings or working on projects on calls.  

In the long run, slowing down can help you speed up your deadlines and allow you to put out the best product or service. If you still think you are the exception and can multitask like a pro, Miller makes a great point: “Think about writing an e-mail and talking on the phone at the same time. Those things are nearly impossible to do at the same time; you cannot focus on one while doing the other. That's because of what's called interference between the two tasks."  

Give it a try. You may be surprised at how quickly you discover that your multitasking skills are not what you thought they were.  


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