Man at work desk with multiple arms doing multiple tasks

Americans have become chronic multitaskers.

Employees are asked to get more done in less time and with less help these days. This is nothing new; for decades companies have been getting more and more lean with their teams. 

Technology makes it worse. Since the advent of social media, attention spans have dropped. A recent study out of Denmark suggests that our attention spans are narrowing as a result of the massive amounts of information we receive thanks to social media sites and 24/7 news cycles. For example, in 2013 a global trend on Twitter lasted 17.5 hours. By 2016, that number had dropped to 11.9 hours.

Another recent study showed that men who multitask during cognitive assignments had a 15 point drop in IQ, making them only as smart as the average eight-year-old. Overall, the study showed that multitasking impacted participants as much as staying up all night.

Multitasking also has a negative impact on the brain’s efficiency. It takes time for the brain to shift gears every time someone switches between tasks. It can take twenty minutes for the brain to get re-engaged when someone is interrupted at a task. 

In a world where the cult of busy-ness reigns supreme, it can be a radical act to slow down. But what if by slowing down, you could get more done? It may seem like an impossible thing, but it can be done.

Start by time chunking: focus for 25 minutes on one task before moving on to the next. For larger projects, set aside 50 minutes to work “heads down” then take a 10-minute break. 50 minutes is the maximum amount of time someone can focus on one task without a break unless they’ve entered the “flow state.” 

Email is one of the biggest time-wasters at work. Studies show that the average professional spends 23% of their time on email. A UC Irvine team studied an office team, then cut them off of email for five days. They found that employees were less stressed, focused on tasks longer, and worked more efficiently. Commit to checking email only at certain times, say three times a day. 

If you work around other people, you’ll need to re-train them so they don’t interrupt you. Have a code: a sign or something that gives them a visual signal that you’re not to be interrupted. Some people use big headphones or a tent sign that says “focus time.” 

Single-tasking as a team can improve communication, make the team more productive, and improve the quality of work. If everyone on the team is multitasking, they’ll be too distracted to deliver their best work. Set aside time each day for everyone to be heads down focused on the same project and see what happens to productivity. 

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About The Author

Johanna Lyman's picture

Johanna Lyman (she/her or they/them) is the Principal Consultant and Practice Leader for Culture and Inclusion at Kadabra. She is a dynamic, energetic Leadership and Culture coach and consultant with nearly 30 years of experience of leadership development and culture change.

She is adept at combining coaching, training, and facilitation to help clients build sustainably profitable businesses while creating deep meaning in their work. She quickly establishes rapport and creates a container of psychological safety, belonging, and deep trust with her clients and their teams. She believes that inclusion and diversity should be seen as the natural outcomes of building great cultures.

Johanna is wife to the best husband on the planet, mother to an adult daughter, and dog-mom to Petey the Amazing Tripod.

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