The idea of multitasking has been around for quite some time; both in the people’s personal and professional lives. Whether or not multitasking is a good idea is oftentimes up for debate. I’ve met some people who swear by multitasking, and others who are concretely against dividing their attention for fear of losing quality.
What’s interesting is that there doesn’t seem to be any correlation between multitasking (or a lack of it) and personal success. I’ve met very successful people on both ends of the spectrum who attribute their good fortune to multitasking/non-multitasking. It would seem that multitasking – like any tool – can either be beneficial or destructive to getting things done in a timely (and quality) manner.
So today, we’ll go over some of the best situations for multitasking, as well as situations that are better without it.
Do: Set Aside “Focus” Time
No matter who you are or what side you land on, there are going to be certain tasks where trying to perform them while multitasking is the worst possible option.
For me, a great example of this is teaching a class. During the 60-90 minutes I’m teaching, it is my intention to be 100% present in-the-moment and focused. There are times where I try to handle other things at the same time (especially in emergencies), but I can immediately tell the difference in the quality of how I teach when I allow myself to get distracted by something else (even temporarily).
Everyone has situations like this that can occur. Maybe it’s a big quarterly goal at work, or a research project, or just some massive data-entry task that is time-consuming. These are tasks that can take a much longer chunk of time to complete if we’re constantly getting distracted by other happenings around us. As such, is important to set aside time specifically for those tasks where you don’t allow other things to get in the way.
A good way to achieve this is to set aside hour-sized chunks of your day where your only focus will be on one particular tasks. You can stack these hours for bigger projects, but you’ll want to make sure you sneak in some 5-10 minute breaks during that time so that you don’t run into problems…
Which leads to our first don’t…
Don’t: Burn Out On Only One Task
As much as I would love to be able to buckle down and finish a 12-hour project all at once, it’s never once worked that way in practice. I’m usually good for the first couple of hours, but then things take a turn for the worst. By the time I’m on hour 4 or 5 of doing a project, it’s taking me twice as long to make progress as I was at the beginning. Not only that, but my stress level ends up much higher and the quality of my work drops significantly.
The human brain is not great at staying on one task for incredibly long periods of time (unless it happens to be a hobby or task that we find extremely enjoyable). As such, is important to step away from a task from time to time in order for the brain to refresh. Even something as simple as a 10-15 minute walk can help the brain recalibrate after a long period of focus.
This is where multitasking can be a benefit. I will oftentimes try to break up my “focus chunks” with slots of time filled with simple, mindless tasks that give my brain a break while still being productive. Whether or not I do 2 or 3 of these tasks at once is irrelevant, especially if they don’t really require any brainpower to do (such as running dishes or laundry, or reading through emails while you grab a quick snack).
Do: Multitask Using Different Senses
The #1 question I ask myself when I’m contemplating multitasking: “are these two tasks completed with two different senses?”
For example, it is incredibly difficult (and NOT recommended) to watch a video and drive at the same time. Both of those tasks primarily require the attention of your sense of sight (looking at a video vs. looking at the road). If you try to do both simultaneously, neither one is done very well (something that leads to a lot of horrific outcomes in the context of driving while distracted).
Listening to an audiobook while driving, however, is a good example of multitasking that can increase your time efficiency. An audiobook does not require your sight, only your sense of hearing. Therefore, it’s not too difficult to perform them simultaneously (so long as the audiobook isn’t so loud that you can’t hear what’s going on around you).
Other examples of this could be listening to the news while reading a book, or folding clothes while you watch a presentation. Any time the primary sense used in tasks are different, they generally make a better pair when it comes to multitasking.
Don’t: Perform two “one-chance” tasks at once
This somewhat ties into our “focus time” topic up above, but it’s important to highlight whether or not a task or project is a “one-time” task or project. When I say “one-time”, I’m referring to something that you only get one chance to do right before it’s completed.
An example of a one-chance task would be cooking. I can’t un-cook chicken; so if I burn it, that’s the end of it. Therefore, my attention is fully devoted to cooking when it’s required. Another example of a “one-chance” task would be a meeting with your boss, or filling out an important piece of paperwork.
An example of a task that is NOT a once-chance task would be a movie. If I get distracted and miss a section, I can rewind it and regain what I missed. Another example would be reading a book, or perhaps doing laundry.
If I identify a task as a “one-chance” task, I always make sure to do it when there’s no distractions, even if it’s a 5-minute task. That way, there isn’t the risk of me messing it up and causing more problems for myself down the road.
Do: Minimize “Gray Time”
There are many people in the world who excuse themselves from being more productive because of tasks that contain a lot of “gray time”. In order to explain what “gray time” is, I’m going to have to give an example.
If you ask me how long it takes for a load of laundry to get done, I would say it takes roughly 1-2 hours. But if you ask me how long I spend doing that same load of laundry, I’m going to tell you that it took me about 10 minutes.
Why? Because the only 10 minutes I was involved was physically moving the clothes from the basket to the washer, then to the dryer, then back to a basket. The other 90+ minutes was simply waiting for the washer and dryer to do their job – that 90+ minute period is “gray time”.
Gray time can be very dangerous. I have literally watched people in this exact scenario. They will load their washer and then spend the next 45 minutes watching TV while the washer runs, but then say “I’m doing laundry” if I ask them what they’re up to.
Rather than having that mindset, try to multitask and stack “gray time” tasks together. Laundry, dishes and dinner are great things to stack together. Rather than sit and wait for the laundry to finish, start the dishwasher instead. Then while those two are running, maybe start cooking a dinner that may have a long cook-time. Now you’re doing three things at once, even though technically your just doing one thing at a time and capitalizing on “gray time”.
There is nothing in this world that is purely good or purely bad. Every good thing has a bad side, and every bad thing has a silver lining. Multitasking is no different, and it is because we know this that we can learn how to maximize the advantages of multitasking while minimizing the drawbacks.
My recommendation is to start small and try adding one of these ideas into your daily routine each month. If you’re consistent over time, you’ll be amazed with how much more you can complete without sacrificing extra time (for more tips on remaining productive, you can check out our productivity post here).
Hopefully, everyone can at least make one positive change after reading through this information!