How Multitasking Works


Curbing the Multitasking Habit
Rather than checking your inbox all day, set specific times to do it. Use an alarm if necessary. ryccio/Getty Images

In today's notification-heavy society, it can seem like a pipe dream to downshift multitasking habits. "The advent of smartphones has absolutely increased our propensity for multitasking. It gives us a device that we carry with us almost at all times that is a black hole of attention," Dr. Gratias notes. "We are pinged and dinged and notified to pieces about incoming messages that pull us away from the task at hand."

Fortunately, there are some pretty simple ways to kick, or at least minimize, the practice. First, turn off all email, social media and other alerts, even your phone's ringer. "A simple practice that my clients find incredibly effective is to use the timer on their phone and set it for 15 minutes, for example. Focus on one thing for that 15-minute time. It's almost like giving yourself permission to close down email and work on one task to the exclusion of all others," says Gratias.

Some experts also recommend batch processing emails. Rather than checking your inbox constantly, all day long, set specific time periods every few hours to read and respond to messages. By doing so, you won't get pulled off in a million different directions that often have little or nothing to do with the tasks that truly need to be completed.

Schedule appointments to handle especially large, daunting tasks. Go to a meeting room if it helps with concentration.

Finally, keep your workspace clean and orderly because clutter is likely to attract attention when the mind starts to wander [source: Jarrow].

Author's Note: How Multitasking Works

I'm as bad as the next person about keeping email and social media windows open while I work. Although I can't mute my cell phone (darn parenting responsibilities), I did use this article as an excuse to shut everything else down. I thought I might feel out of the loop, especially with regard to email, but I found that it was much easier to concentrate ... and all of my messages patiently waited in my inbox until I was ready to address them.

Related Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • American Psychological Association. "Multitasking: Switching Costs." March 20, 2006 (Jan. 18, 2017) http://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask.aspx
  • Clear, James. "The Myth of Multitasking: Why Fewer Priorities Leads to Better Work." James Clear. 2017 (Jan. 18, 2017) http://jamesclear.com/multitasking-myth
  • Clear, James. Email interview, Jan. 17, 2017.
  • Distraction.gov. "Facts and Statistics." 2017 (Jan. 18, 2017) https://www.distraction.gov/stats-research-laws/facts-and-statistics.html
  • Gratias, Melissa Ph.D. Telelphone interview, Jan. 10, 2017.
  • Janssen, Christian P., et al. "Integrating Knowledge of Multitasking and Interruptions Across Different Perspectives and Research Methods." International Journal of Human-Computer Studies. 2015 (Jan. 18, 2017) http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1465496/1/Janssen_etAl_2015_IJHCS.pdf
  • Jarrow, Craig. "8 Ways to Stop Multitasking and Get Work Done." Time Management Ninja. 2017 (Jan. 30, 2017) https://timemanagementninja.com/2013/09/8-ways-to-stop-multitasking-and-get-work-done/
  • MacMillan, Amanda. "12 Reasons to Stop Multitasking Now!" Health.com. 2016 (Jan. 18, 2017) http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20707868,00.html#you-re-not-really-multitasking-0
  • Mark, Gloria. "The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress." University of California, Irvine. (Jan. 18, 2017) https://www.ics.uci.edu/~gmark/chi08-mark.pdf
  • Martinez-Conde, Susana Ph.D. Neuroscientist and co-author of "Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions." Email interview, Jan. 17, 2017.
  • Rettner, Rachael. "Why We Can't Do 3 Things At Once." LiveScience. April 15, 2010 (Jan. 18, 2017) http://www.livescience.com/10992-3.html
  • Society for Neuroscience. "The Multitasking Mind." Oct. 9, 2013 (Jan. 30, 2017) http://www.brainfacts.org/sensing-thinking-behaving/awareness-and-attention/articles/2013/the-multitasking-mind/
  • Stillman, Jessica. "Multitasking is Making You Stupid." Inc. Aug. 17, 2012 (Jan. 18, 2017) http://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/multitasking-is-making-you-stupid.html
  • Sullivan, Meg. "Think multitasking is new? Our prehistoric ancestors invented it, UCLA book argues." UCLA Newsroom. Dec. 7, 2010 (Jan. 18, 2017) http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/new-ucla-book-traces-suprisingly-179731
  • Thomas, Maura. RegainYourTime. Email interview, Jan 17, 2017.
  • University of Southern California. "To Multitask of Not to Multitask." 2017 (Jan. 18, 2017) http://appliedpsychologydegree.usc.edu/resources/articles/to-multitask-or-not-to-multitask/
  • University of Utah. "Few Drive Well While Yakking on Phone." U News Center. March 29, 2010 (Jan. 30, 2017) http://archive.unews.utah.edu/news_releases/few-drive-well-while-yakking-on-phone/
  • Weinschenk, Susan Ph.D. "The True Cost of Multi-Tasking." Psychology Today. Sept. 18, 2012 (Jan. 18, 2017) https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-wise/201209/the-true-cost-multi-tasking

More to Explore