How To Stop Multitasking (And Start Being More Focused)
It might be hard to imagine now, but there was a time in the not so distant past—before smartphones, 5G internet, laptops and tablets—where offices and workflows all over the world engaged predominantly in mono-tasking. It would seem, today, that those days are long gone.
For better or for worse, modern lifestyles have catalysed the advent of multitasking in a way that no other age or time in history has. Smartphones, for example, haven’t just made frequent task-switching a norm: they’ve made it unthinkable to approach productivity in any other way besides multitasking.
Nevertheless, the cumulative effects of multitasking are dire enough to warrant a serious reconsideration of whether such frequent task-switching proves beneficial or detrimental to daily performance in the workplace and to general well-being.
Research shows, for instance, that the more frequently we multitask, the less productive and more stressed we get. Additionally, it also weakens problem-solving and creativity. Knowing this, though, isn’t enough; most of us have gotten so used to multitasking that switching to mono-tasking seems like a monumental, almost impossible thing to do.
Given the ubiquity of devices we own that make multi-tasking easy, it can really feel like an uphill task. To that end, here’s 5 tips on how to stop multitasking and start being more focused instead.
1. Reject “FOMO”
One of the biggest imperatives to multitasking is the feeling that if we’re doing more than one thing at a time, we can get so much more done. By extension, we think we miss out on so much less than if we were only taking things one at a time.
This fear of missing out—“FOMO”—is one that permeates so many aspects of our lives, even at work. At its core, it comes down to the desire to have and attain as many things as possible in as little time as possible.
While it may seem like multitasking helps you in this regard, especially on those days hectic jam-packed days at work, it’s actually more detrimental than helpful to your personal productivity and efficiency.
The fact is, multitasking only provides the illusion of greater productivity without helping you get more things done in less time. So if your aim is to be more productive and improve your performance at work, multitasking is actually what’s making you miss out on your goals. Realising this is the first step to stopping your multitasking habits.
The opposite of multitasking is focus. Without systematically identifying exactly where you need to direct your attention to, though, you’ll simply revert easily back to multitasking, since that’s what you know best.
Instead of constantly switching between different tasks with different levels of complexity and importance, it’s imperative to understand the demands of each task on your to-do list so that you can prioritise accordingly and focus better on individual tasks.
In his bestseller “Deep Work”, bestselling author and computer scientist Cal Newport makes a distinction between “deep work” and “shallow work”. Shallow work refers to tasks that are by nature “non-cognitive”, requiring less mental effort. Conversely, deep work refers to tasks that “push your cognitive capabilities to their limit”, and are therefore best served by total concentration and minimal to zero distractions.
Differentiating between the “deep work” tasks on your to-do list and the “shallow work” ones is critical in understanding where the need to cut out multitasking is strongest. If going cold turkey is too hard for you in this regard, then focusing on eliminating multitasking on your most important tasks for starters may be helpful.
3. Regulate your phone usage
Our daily technology habits are very often one of the biggest culprits of why we’re so used to multitasking. Between checking emails every hour, getting on social media 54 times a day, watching videos or playing games on the commute, and texting, it really makes multitasking a no-brainer.
If you’re serious about cutting out multitasking, then, it’s worth doing a critical overhaul of your device habits. Even if you don’t do much work-related tasks on your phone, just the fact that it conditions you on a daily basis to come to expect (even crave) multitasking is reason enough to start regulating your phone habits.
Kick the habit of compulsive phone checking
Keep your phone far away from you when you need to go into high-focus mode
Charge your phone outside of your room and not right beside your bed, so that you don’t reach for it first thing in the morning and right before you go to bed
4. Use the Pomodoro Technique
Habit change is never easy, especially when it comes to multitasking. Transitioning from doing multiple things at once to focusing on one thing at a time is hard when you’re used to being easily distracted. Expecting yourself to be able to switch to high-focus mode the minute you decide you want to cut out multitasking may not be realistic in that regard.
One way to help yourself get used to focusing on one thing at a time is to try and use the Pomodoro Technique, which consists of working in short but intense 30-minute sessions (Pomodoros), punctuated by 5-minute breaks after each Pomodoro. This way, you’re making small steps towards cutting out multitasking, but also making the process much more manageable by breaking up your high-focus sessions into different parts.