Learn the art of un-multitasking

With technology today allowing us to tend to multiple tasks at the same time, we have all fallen into the trap of believing ourselves brilliant multitaskers when the hard truth is that most of us are terrible at it.

By Gary Epstein

While we all want to believe ourselves brilliant multitaskers, the truth is that our brains are simply not wired to focus on more than one task at a time. In fact, neuroscientists have proven that while we can’t actually multitask per se, what we can do is to shift our focus from one task to the next with astonishing speed. Switching between tasks, however, does not make you a multitasker and even though you might think that you’re paying attention to everything around you, you’re actually not. Splitting our focus between tasks causes us to lose our train of thought, to have to redo work, and to erroneously assume that we have completed a task, only to realise that we have overlooked a critical element. If this is you, we suggest you re-evaluate your working habits.

Five tips to help you become more efficient and forget about multitasking altogether.

1. List your taks & don't be afraid to say no
Take five minutes in the morning to look at what you need to accomplish for the day and prioritise your tasks. Knowing exactly what you need to accomplish will allow you to better manage your time, to establish deadlines and set expectations with your colleagues and/or team. With a clear indication of how much time you have available for smaller or unexpected tasks, when a colleague approaches you for help, you can now confidently commit to a time frame.

2. Focus on one task at a time
Block off time for each project, focus on doing one thing at a time and complete each task before moving on to the next. A busy person may argue that taking time out to plan your projects and think through the time needed to complete each task is a waste of valuable time, but it is well worth the investment to ensure that you are able to meet your commitments.

3. Put down the technology/distractions
While technology can be convenient, it can also be a huge distraction. When working on a project, close your email and turn off all notifications that could draw your attention away from the job at hand. You should even go as far as turning off your phone or, if this is too difficult, at least put it on silent. Finally, close your door if need be and give the job at hand the attention it deserves. You’ll be amazed at how putting technology on the back burner for just a little while will allow you to accomplish so much more.

4. Dedicate time for checking your mail
Email is one of the biggest culprits for drawing our attention away for the job at hand. Most of us like to keep our inboxes low and to get back to people quickly, but giving in to the pressure of being ever-available is not a good trap to fall into. Dedicating specific times for attending to emails will help you not feel like you need to drop everything and answer right away. If colleagues, clients or contacts are frustrated by your lack of instant response, explain your modus operandi and they will soon learn to only expect a response during specified times. They will soon realise that this manner of working actually allows you to be far more effective.

5. Be present
This is hard. 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 responding to WhatsApps, attending to other tasks or checking your emails while you are in a meeting.
This advice also applies to your social life and your interactions with loved ones. Talking on your phone while out to lunch with your family or friends is disrespectful. Being present and giving your full attention to the people you are interacting with shows respect and will stand you in good stead.

In the long run, taking the time to slow down can actually help you to deliver a better product or service. If you still think you are the exception and can multitask like a pro, try writing an email and talking on the phone at the same time. You will soon learn that your multitasking skills are not quite what you imagined. Why not rather learn the art of how to be a non-multitasker and focus on doing one thing well at a time?