Multitasking or monotasking? Six tips for smarter, deeper work

Multi-tasking may have earned itself a bad name, but that doesn’t mean we’re doing it any less.

Do you ever find yourself switching between different documents, answering a colleague’s question, checking a row of open tabs and skimming emails while glancing at the phone flashing at your side? You might have been working for hours, but it may seem that you have little to show for it.

A growing body of research confirms the validity of that familiar feeling.

First up, let’s clarify the term. Multitasking is not, as the term implies, the practice of performing different tasks at the same time, but rather moving quickly and sequentially between them.

MIT Professor of Neuroscience Earl Miller explains that we are ‘not wired to multitask well… when people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost.’

That cost is higher than we might think. A study by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London found that multitasking with electronic media resulted in a dip in IQ greater than that caused by smoking marijuana or going without sleep for a night.

Multitasking has been found to hamper performance, erode memory, stifle creativity, increase stress and even negatively affect the brain.

But the drive to do it is stronger than ever. While heavy workloads and high expectations intensify the pressure to make progress against a number of goals at the same time, another powerful behaviour driver is also at work.

The temptation to switch in and out of tasks is being fed by platforms designed to capture as much of our time and attention as possible. The dopamine high we get from social media notifications, for example, keeps us going back to generate or check for more. These channels are invaluable in terms of networking, idea-sharing and getting research read and acted on (read our tips for harnessing their power here). But if the level at which you’re interacting on them leads to blurred focus and distraction, it might be time to review how you use them.

Dopamine is also released when we complete a mini-task such as sending an email or posting an update. This means we can sometimes find ourselves in a cycle of completing tiny tasks for gratification rather than tackling the big, complex, important tasks.

As an academic pursuing the goals of excellence, originality and breakthrough in your specialist field, it’s more important than ever to avoid the pitfalls of such compromising work patterns.

So how can that be done? Here are six suggestions:

  1. Identify the time of day when your energy and focus peak. Wherever possible, schedule your most demanding tasks during these hours. Tick off rapid-fire tasks that require less reflection during that part of the day when your performance tends to dip.
  1. Monotask. Set aside time for cognitively demanding work and then protect it fiercely. In the age of hot-desking, remote working and 24/7 availability, draw inspiration from the practice of physically closing an office door to minimise intrusion. Deliberately mark out your time and space with a clear boundary by blocking it out in your diary and letting colleagues know. Do this consistently and for long enough and you’re likely to see a significant improvement in productivity.
  1. Reduce time lost switching between different areas by grouping together tasks that relate to and even enhance each other. Try streamlining your focus by organising meetings, tasks and research related to one specific aspect of your work on the same day, so you don’t lose time and momentum alternating between unrelated areas.
  1. Review your relationship with email. A McKinsey Global Institute study found that the average worker spends 13 hours a week on email. Put an end to constant interruption by carving out specific times to deal with your inbox. Then commit to reading and responding quickly wherever possible. Stem the relentless flow of incoming email by unsubscribing from anything no longer useful or relevant.
  1. Be ruthless in quietening distractions – and this might well include your phone. Research group Dscout has found that we touch our phones over 2,600 times a day, which equates to twelve and a half hours over a working week. Switch off notifications and put your phone out of easy reach. Consider using some of these browser extensions to boost your concentration and productivity during times of focused work.
  1. Give your brain a break. Time spent being physically active away from your screen improves your performance when you return. It can boost energy levels, reduce stress and give your mind the perspective it needs to problem solve and join the dots in your thinking.

By prioritising monotasking over multitasking you can make your diary and devices work for rather than against you – and the new level of focus, energy and clarity may well pay dividends in the advancement of your academic career.

Further reading

Streamline your day with these five time management tips from Princeton University’s Professor Nick Feamster.

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Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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