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Four methods for mastering multitasking

Colm Larkin

April 28, 2016

Productivity illustration by Luke Bott

In a recent survey conducted by Hightail, we discovered that only 16% of respondents work on a single project at a time. Everyone else is juggling multiple projects with nearly 40% working on four or more. Multitasking is the norm for most of us, but is it effective?

Multitasking means switching between tasks before one is finished, rather than carrying out tasks at the exact same time, unless you consider patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time to be worth a LinkedIn Endorsement. Most contemporary studies believe it to be ineffective and one psychologist, Edward Hallowell, described it as a “mythical activity”.

Numerous studies of learning have shown that it makes absorbing new information almost impossible. For example, a 2013 observational study of students showed that persistent multitaskers switched tasks on average every six minutes and tended to have a lower Grade Point Average than those that were able to focus on one thing.

But there are potential benefits of multitasking. One experiment showed that though multitaskers tended to complete tasks slowly or make mistakes, they were better at more creative tasks. As journalist Tim Harford writes, it’s “easier to think outside the box if you spend a lot of time clambering between different boxes”. Being distracted can often help with seemingly intractable problems, much like the inspiring effects of a shower espoused by Jack Donaghy.

Ultimately, whether multitasking is a good or bad thing is probably a moot point. 84% of us do it, so the key is to understand how to do it well. These four tips for effective multitasking will help improve your juggling act.

1. Know when to focus
You can spend your day hopping from your inbox to meetings to quick reviews and back to your inbox. But be clear about those tasks that demand your full attention and set aside time to complete it or at least a defined chunk. When it’s time to focus, shut down your email, browser and phone and wear headphones to show others that you’re in do-not-disturb mode.

2. Live by your to-do list
Incomplete tasks take up brain space that divides your attention. Productivity guru, David Allen, calls these “open loops” and suggests writing down the next step of an incomplete task to close a loop. Create a comprehensive to-do list and let it control your day. Only the day’s most urgent incoming requests should displace the tasks on your to-do list.

3. Use dedicated digital services
If email is your primary tool for getting things done, you will invariably be distracted by the volume of messages on a range of diverse topics that you will see during your day. But using a dedicated collaboration service like Hightail to collect creative feedback helps you stay focused on completing that task. Find a suitable service for your needs and get out of your inbox.

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4. Review to remember
A 2006 experiment found that even when multitaskers completed tasks successfully, they found themselves later unable to recall details of what they had done. This is why multitasking is such a poor tactic for learning new things. Set aside time to review tasks and projects carried out concurrently so you can actually understand and remember the important details.

One of the most interesting findings from scientific studies of multitasking is that people who think they are good are it are often the worst performers in experiments. So if these four tips do improve your mastery of multitasking, don’t ever believe you’ve completely cracked it.


  1. Hamo

    3 years ago

    Funny u mentioned multi tasking. I’ve spent the last 15 years learning that and now I’m being told that multi tasking is the reason why I’m not getting admin jobs. Damned if u do and damned if u don’t!

  2. KitchenGuyd

    3 years ago

    Hi there, I check your blogs daily. Your humoristic style is awesome, keep it up!

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