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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

My Quest to Banish Multitasking—and What Anyone Can Learn From It

Usually, at any given time, I have about 10 to 20 tabs open on Chrome. I’m also juggling several tasks at once: answering emails as they come in, updating my organization’s social media channels, writing an article, browsing the news—you get the picture.

I used to think this method of tackling everything at once made me more efficient, but I’ve started to notice that it actually takes longer to finish anything. I’ll write a couple lines of a piece for The Muse, jump over Twitter and churn out a tweet, think of a message I need to send, and finally jump back to my Word doc—only to have completely lost my train of thought.

This is called “the myth of multitasking,” and I’m not the first to realize that it harms our work. In fact, research shows that multitasking lowers productivity by up to 40% and increases errors and stress.

Why, then, is multitasking still a thing? And, more importatly, how can multitaskers like me stop once and for all?

It Feels Good

Just like eating an entire carton of ice cream in one sitting (guilty) can give you a temporary boost, it turns out there’s a positive emotional response associated with multitasking.

A study from the Ohio State University found those who multitask feel better—not because they got more done (their performance was actually impaired) but because they perceived they were getting more done. The subjects, explains study author Zheng Wang, “seem to be misperceiving the positive feelings they get from multitasking. They are not being more productive—they just feel more emotionally satisfied from their work.”

So by recognizing that my multitasking is holding me back, I’ve already made some progress.

My next step (and yours)? To eradicate it. When I sat down to think about it, I pinpointed three key reasons I multitask: the nature of internet browsing making it easy to flip-flop between web pages, my lack of organization, and my propensity to get bored when I spend a long time on one task.

Here’s how I tackled them, one by one.

One Tab

Remember all of those open tabs I mentioned? Well, I’m not alone. According to a Mozilla Firefox study, most people have around five to 10 tabs open at one time.

I often leave websites open if I know I’ll have to go back and reference them while I’m working. However, that’s no excuse for having Gmail, Twitter, and Facebook up—especially because I’ve gotten into the habit of instantly checking them whenever I see a notification pop up in their tab.

To force myself to focus, I downloaded OneTab, a Chrome extension that converts all of your open tabs into a hyperlinked list.

It’s amazing how even just the visual effect of reducing my browser to one website improves my concentration, like the virtual version of cleaning my desk. Plus, it’s much harder to do three things at once when I’m only looking at one.

Make a List

One of the reasons I skip from project to project throughout the day is because I often remember something I have to do midway through something else. Suddenly, I feel compelled to complete this new task—either because it’s more urgent, or I don’t want to forget it again, or simply because what I’m currently working on isn’t very entertaining.

However, I’ve found I can solve all of these problems by making a better to-do list.

I’m far from the first professional (or Muser) to champion the power of a task list, so this is not revolutionary advice.

However, if like me, your to-do list is scattered across various platforms—a physical planner, an app like Evernote, a desk calendar, Google Calendar, a notepad, an extension like Any.Do, and so on—you may want to consider concentrating them into a single source.

That’s what I did. I decided to exclusively use my planner—since I can use it for scheduling both dates and assignments—and refused to write reminders anywhere else.

Similar to OneTab, this instantly made me feel more organized. It also guaranteed I never suddenly realized I was forgetting a deadline or project, so I could work on one thing in peace.

Chunk it Out

Another reason I multitask is because I crave variety. While the “addictive nature” of multi-tasking hasn’t been well-studied, one researcher has likened it to skydiving or playing video games, activities in which we “get a buzz from novelty and variety.”

Fighting against my impulses reminded me of the Pomodoro Technique, a work method that has you work in set increments, then take periodic breaks. For example, you complete three cycles of working for 25 minutes and then rest for five. It’s designed to fight procrastination, but I wondered if assigning myself to work solely on one project for a set amount of time could have the same effect on my tendency to multitask.

It definitely did. For longer projects, I found my momentum around the 20-minute mark, whereas before I had been jumping to something different every five or 10 minutes. And with the shorter tasks, after a couple of days I didn’t even need a timer—I could just work until they were done.

When I began this article, I was a chronic multitasker. However, as I write these last sentences, I’m proud to report that not only do I have just one tab open, but this is the sole thing I’ve been working on for the past 20 minutes. I may still have an obsessive need to check my email—but I’ll save that problem for next week.

Photo of octopus courtesy of Shutterstock.