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The Dangers of Multitasking and Losing Your Focus

After the recent New York Times article about distracted drivers, I’ve read quite a few articles and posts about multitasking that have made me consider some of my habits. Although I’ve talked in the past about the importance of focus and setting aside time to work without distractions, I’ve been guilty of distracting myself as I try to juggle too many different tasks at the same time, frenetically switching between windows and conversations on my computer in an attempt to get more done in less time.

Lateral Action had an article last week called Why Multitasking Doesn’t Work, and it really made me think about some of those habits and try out some different things instead.

What is Multitasking?

Two different types of activities are often referred to as multitasking. One is combining a mindless, routine activity as you focus on another, such as folding the laundry while you talk on the phone. This kind of multitasking works, and like doodling, it may improve your concentration.

However, the other type of multitasking, defined as rapid task-switching by the article I mentioned above, involves trying to juggle two or more activities at once that require equal focus and concentration. For example, writing a blog post and trying to have a conversation, in-person or on instant messenger.

This type of multitasking ends up being counterproductive for a number of reasons:

1. None of the tasks are getting your full attention, even though they all need and deserve it.

2. You’re unable to get into the zone where your work just flows quickly and smoothly (often resulting in better quality work) because you keep switching out of it to try to focus on another task.

3. Your body may physically react to rapid task-switching as you try to juggle too many balls at once. This adrenaline rush actually hurts your concentration even more.

Breaking the Multitasking Habit

If you’ve found yourself falling into the same pattern of trying to do too many things at once, here are some tips for getting back to focusing on one task at a time:

  • Write a prioritized to-do list.
  • Only pull out or open the supplies, files, or windows related to the task at hand. This is true whether you’re working on a creative project, using paper files, or working on your computer. Put other things to the side (or save them to your favorites or desktop and close the window) until you’re ready for the next task.
  • Make a note of any other tasks you think of for later. Do not try to stop what you’re doing to take care of it, even if it would only take a couple of minutes.
  • For larger projects, use a timer to focus on the task at hand for a set amount of time. Take a break, knock out some of the smaller items on your to-do list, and then set the timer and focus again.

Are you guilty of rapid task-switching disguised as multitasking? Do you agree with the premise that multitasking in this way actually hurts your productivity?