Multitasking | How to Develop this MUST Have Skill
Is multitasking a must-have skill? Or is it a myth? Many people have tried to multitask, and found it difficult to achieve, while others swear by their ability to handle multiple tasks at the same time.
In this article, we will look at 1) what is multitasking, 2) reasons for inefficient multitasking, 3) techniques to help you multitask more efficiently, and 4) tips from entrepreneurs on multitasking.
WHAT IS MULTITASKING?
The term “multitasking”, comes from “computer multitasking”. This refers to a computer’s ability to perform several tasks at the same time. Human multitasking, therefore, is a human’s ability to perform multiple tasks at the same time. We often multitask without even realizing; watching TV while checking texts, listening to music while working, or walking while talking to someone. Done correctly, effective multitasking is an exercise in brain behavior and the ensuing organization and utilization of the neural channels within. However, to do so, the modern entrepreneur needs to balance tasks, non-stop interruptions, concentration issues and personal procrastination.
Contrary to what many believe, multitasking is not just doing two or multiple things at the same time. Yes, the process includes attempting to complete several things in tangent, and this is accomplished by mentally going back and forth between two or more tasks so rapidly that it appears we are doing them simultaneously. Multitasking can also entail doing a number of tasks in rapid-fire succession. No matter what the entrepreneur is trying to balance, this mental shifting is not always a conscious effort – it just naturally happens. This can and should be guided however for the best overall results.
Multitask researchers refer to someone who tries to do several or too many different things at once as a “heavy multitasker”. And if you are like most entrepreneurs, you probably think that you are balancing everything at one time very well. But is this really true? It may or not be.
The Science behind Multitasking
Many entrepreneurs assume that multitasking is the best way to increase their productivity. If you are working on several different tasks at the same time, you will always accomplish more, right? This may surprise you but research about the brain and its functionality is showing that switching from task to task at the same time actually negatively affects your productivity output. In fact data shows that trying to do too many things at once may actually weaken your cognitive abilities.
In order to understand the implications and impact of multitasking on humans, several different psychologists asked scientific-study participants to change tasks in a controlled situation. They then measured how much time was lost while switching was underway.
In his study, Stephen Monsell discovered that participants were slower at switching tasks than when they were required to repeat the same task. Another study by Jeffrey Evans, Joshua Rubinstein and David Meyer showed that participants lost considerable amounts of time when attempting multiple-tasks switching. Even more time disappeared as the tasks became more and more complex.
Meyer, Evans and Rubinstein also identified two sub-stages involved in the executive-control process. The first is “goal shifting” – deciding what task(s) take precedence. The second is “role activation” – changing from the requirements for a previous task to requirements for a new task. Switching between the mental executive functions may eat up only tenths of a second, but the time starts to add up when someone switches from A to B repeatedly. This might not be so important in the case of mundane tasks. However, in a situation where entrepreneurial productivity is required, these miniscule time spans can determine what constitutes success or failure. The study findings suggest that productivity results can fall by up to 40% when entrepreneurs change task focus.
David Meyer agrees with the one-task approach. Meyer is a recognized expert on multitasking and is the Director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan. Along with David Kieras, a psychologist for the Office of Naval Research in the U.S., Meyer has investigated how the brain processes in terms of accuracy, memory and speed. In Kieras’ opinion, when performing several tasks which require the same channels in the brain for processing data at the same time, you will encounter mental conflicts. So you have to choose your prime focus task and allow the brain to process it. Contrary to popular belief and what you may think, your brain’s neural conduits simply cannot do two cognitively complicated tasks at the same time effectively. This hypothesis surprises many entrepreneurs. Meyer finishes with the advice that if you try to spread your thought processes too thin, it simply cannot and will not work.
Paolo Cardini: Forget multitasking, try monotasking
Be that as it may, Meyer says that many entrepreneurs are still the most compulsive, “macho master multitaskers”. He strongly recommends that these entrepreneurs organize their priorities and focus on what is important in order to avoid mental “brownouts” and the ensuing mistakes they may be responsible for. And that such overloading can be dangerous to your health as well. His advice for multitasking entrepreneurs includes putting aside considerable time for just thinking to make sure everything is progressing well. He finishes with the reminder that some of the greatest productive minds, such as Edison and Einstein, did not finish their tasks by being mentally scattered, i.e., multitasking. That’s good entrepreneurial advice to adhere to.
What do these findings mean? Multitasking in the brain is controlled by something called “mental-executive functions”. These executive functions manage a variety of cognitive processes and decide how, when and in what order some tasks are completed.
REASONS FOR INEFFICIENT MULTITASKING
For the sake of argument, we will refer to doing two tasks back-to-back as multitasking, as we have already seen that true multitasking, like a computer, isn’t possible for a human brain. Now let’s address reasons why multitasking can be inefficient, and other factors that play a role in making multitasking seem impractical.
1. The brain is not built for multitasking
As studies have show, the brain is incapable of focusing on one task 100% when multitasking. This can result in errors in work, as well as taking a longer time to complete one task. While multitasking, the brain is forced to stop and re-focus attention each time a task is switched, resulting in a loss of time.
TEDxSanJoseCA – Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD – Brain: Memory and Multitasking
2. Continuous partial attention
This concept, coined by Linda Stone, describes a type of multitasking – one where you skim the incoming data without going to deep into it, and move on to the next stream of data. The problem with this approach lies in being unable to fully process each data stream, and thereby missing things and making errors.
3. Inability to prioritize
One of the main reasons why people fail to multitask efficiently, beyond the limitations set by our brains, is their inability to prioritize. Having a clear idea of which task is more important, and when it needs to be handled, can help boost your ability to get multiple things done in the same period of time.
TECHNIQUES TO HELP YOU MULTITASK MORE EFFICIENTLY
While it’s great to say that “true” multitasking is impossible, we still have to admit that most entrepreneurs have to juggle a huge list of tasks every day, and it is necessary to work out a system for getting through them quickly – often while moving attention from one thing to another in a split second.
Here are some tips that can help you “multitask” more efficiently.
1. Make a to-do list
Every day before you walk away from your work, make a list of to-dos for the next day. This will help you both prioritize and visualize the next day clearly. You will be able to come to work fully aware of how your day will go. This will help you make sure you are addressing the more important tasks first, and on their own, and also help you group similar tasks together. We address both these aspects in the tips to follow.
It is important to have clear understanding on which task is more important, so you can focus more attention towards it. This way, you are less likely to make errors where the more important task is concerned – although ideally, you shouldn’t be making errors at all.
Another way to use your prioritized list is to make sure the items with top-priority are handled one at a time, rather than dividing your attention between them and something else on your list. If replying to client emails is #1, make sure you aren’t taking phone calls or doing another task at the same time.
Every evening, go through your list of priorities and see how you did so you can improve your ability to focus on the more important tasks.
3. Solve tasks in blocks
When organizing priorities, do your best to try to group similar tasks which can be completed together. Maybe you have to send some emails to clarify information for a report or presentation. These will group well. Another group of tasks that most of us take care of almost every day is scanning social networks and sharing posts on our timelines. You can set aside one hour per day where you scan all your social networks – Facebook, Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn – read the posts you want to read, and share the ones you find most interesting. There will be some overlap, and you will get through this group of tasks much quicker than if you were to address them one by one.
4. Avoid distractions
This seems to be self explanatory but when you are multitasking, it can prove difficult to do. You need to be aware of this and practice proactive steps accordingly. Simple examples are turning off your phone and letting it take messages to be responded to later (another priority). Telling team members and/or employees that you want to be left alone to concentrate. Be wary of emails, chats and other computer-generated distractions, at least for a predetermined time span. If you are working from home, try to isolate yourself from family-related distractions if at all possible. It is very important, when dealing with multitasking, to minimize distractions in order to allow for concentration and focus.
You now know that multitasking is theoretically and physiologically impossible. But in your role as the entrepreneurial leader, tasks still have to get done in the shortest time possible. In this case, delegation can be a very viable option – and is highly recommended.
You should assess and prioritize the tasks you should be able to do personally, and the ones that you can delegate to someone else. This is best done by listing out everything you do on a daily basis – answering phone calls, replying to emails, writing, social media management – and then figuring out the processes that are simple enough to pass on to someone else. For example, you can write social media updates and have someone else post them. Or you can write a blog post, but leave the uploading/publishing of it to an assistant.
Start by breaking down your requirements in terms of where you will need experts and where you will not. Then find the people that can help you meet these requirements. Those assisting you may be management team leaders or other in-house employees.
You can also consider using Virtual Assistants, also known as VA’s. The standard definition of a VA is a person who helps you multitask “off premises”. VA’s have become a popular and time-saving option for improving your entrepreneurial businesses’ output while lowering costs and improving efficiency. All you need to do is make sure the task you outsource is laid out precisely so all they need to do is follow the steps correctly.
People often argue in favor of multitasking saying that there are many things they can do in conjunction with each other. The most common example is walking and holding deep conversations, or eating while watching TV. The reason why these kinds of tasks can be done at the same time is simple, practice.
The brain can handle multitasking when the activities are so familiar to you that they have become habits. Think of a toddler learning how to walk. It is not possible for the child to do more than just focus on the steps he/she is taking. However, as time goes by and walking becomes second nature, they will also be able to walk and talk, or walk and hold an object, at the same time.
According to Arthur Markman, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, “We have these brain mechanisms in the frontal lobe that I like to call the ‘stop system,’ because when we’re switching between tasks, they help us stop what we’re doing and engage, or re-engage, in something else. But when something is a habit, we can repeat it without thinking too much about it.”
Of course, this does not mean you can drive and talk on the same time, as driving is too technical a task (with your surrounding environment changing every second) to do along with another task. However, this does mean that you can get better at multitasking where simpler tasks are concerned.
QUOTES ON MULTITASKING FROM ENTREPRENEURS
We collected some quotes from leading entrepreneurs, so can read what they have to say about multitasking. Enjoy!
“When you’re getting ready to juggle multiple businesses, you should be sure that you have enough hands to catch every ball.”by Richard Branson
“More tasks can be completed with four hands than with two!” by David Ehrenberg
“Don’t try to handle too much at once.” by Nicholas Gremion
“…wearing a watch that beeps every hour to help you keep track of passing time.” by Ziver Birg