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On Multitasking

by Sarah Igram, Tero Consultant, Tero International

You've probably seen a job advertisement before that said the ideal candidate would be a good multitasker. Employers often expect anyone who works for them to be a master of multitasking.

But according to research, the next time someone asks you about your multitasking abilities, the best answer you can give may be: "Actually, I prefer to focus on just one task at a time."

Stanford University researchers Clifford Nass, Eyal Ophir and Anthony Wagner conducted a 2009 study on multitaskers. The goal of their study was to find out what talents multitaskers have that other people don't. Instead, they found that multitaskers aren't better at just about anything. Their memories and attention spans suffered as a result of their multitasking, because they were unable to filter out any information-even if that information was irrelevant.

Years later, Anthony Wagner returned to studying multitasking and wrote a paper with neuroscientist Melina Unpacher, where they analyzed the research on media multitasking and cognitive abilities. In the paper, they described repeated findings that people who use many types of media at once are far worse at simple memory tasks. Once again, they could not find a single study where heavy multitaskers had better working memories than people who didn't-because they were required to retain information about several tasks, instead of just one.

Wagner also pointed out that none of us are really multitasking when we think we are, because our brains simply cannot focus on more than one thing at a time. Rather than multitasking, we're just rapidly switching from task to task, never giving ourselves enough time to fully focus on any one thing.

Think about it-if you're trying to complete a task at work, but you're also answering emails right away, fielding calls, or mindlessly bouncing from one task to another, how can you expect to give anything your full attention? And how can you expect to complete your work to the best of your abilities?

Instead of multitasking, choose one task-ideally, your most important task-and stick to it. Once you've completed the task, or reached a logical stopping point, then you can shift your focus to a new task.

You can even try really zeroing in by turning your phone on do not disturb and closing out of your inbox, because more than likely, your texts and emails can wait for an hour or so. And if you want to avoid distraction from your colleagues, you can close your office door or put headphones in.

Finally, when you find yourself getting distracted by another task or an alert on your phone, simply remind yourself of what you're trying to do and direct your focus back to the task at hand.

The next time you feel pressured to complete several tasks at once, remember the research. Paying attention to one thing at a time helps your memory, helps your attention span, and helps you do the best work possible.

Sidebar:

My obsession with multitasking started the first time I studied for finals in college. I'd flip between two or three notebooks and textbooks, sometimes only spending ten to fifteen minutes on one subject before moving onto the next. Unsurprisingly, I was always stressed out during finals week, and never able to retain as much information as I wanted.

I kept trying to multitask through my first year in the workforce, because I thought that was what employers wanted from me. But often, I found that it took me longer to turn things in, because I was just too forgetful or distracted.

It was actually an article shared on Tero's Facebook page that introduced me to the idea of time batching. The premise was that instead of multitasking, one should designate batches of time for one task, and one task only. I started trying that out at my job.

Now, when I first get to work for the day, I look over my calendar and to-do list, and write out that day's schedule. I pencil in one task for an hour or two, then another, and so on. I also schedule breaks in my work, where I can take ten or fifteen minutes to relax.

Batching has helped me remember all the tasks I need to complete, when they need to be completed by, and what I have left to do. It's also helped me feel more focused and goal-oriented than multitasking ever did.



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