Does multitasking work? It matters who you ask. The ability to multitask has been championed as a way to maneuver through your busy day so you don’t fall behind on your tasks. Still others demonize multitasking as the very the antithesis of productivity.
Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, is one of those. He says it’s a myth to think you can do two things at once. The brain is not really multitasking as much as rapidly volleying from one task to the other.
This is not a recipe for concentration.
Is there real science behind these findings or are thought leaders just riding the latest mindfulness cultural trend? The truth is not so hard and fast as some might have you believe. Whatever side science finally lands on in terms of how well multitasking works or doesn’t, one thing is for certain: life makes you multitask.
Life Requires Multitasking
Regardless of the research that says multitasking makes us slower and less accurate, sometimes problems and tasks come at us from every angle. While we’re not advocating multitasking, there’s no avoiding it, so what can you do to multitask as efficiently as possible?
For starters, follow the science. Yes, as noted, science often eats its cake and has it too. For example, there’s this study from the journal Psychological Science, which says that your skills at multitasking are dependent on whether or not you were trained to do two tasks simultaneously or separately.
There are other studies that claim that your ability to juggle tasks is dependent on the context in which they are done. For example, a study by Brown researchers found that, if you’re typing while listening to a conference call, you’d be less likely to make mistakes if you learned to type with similar distractions.
None of the science goes so far as to recommend multitasking over concentrating solely on a single task. But then science typically exists in a laboratory or a controlled environment, not in the real world where there are hard deadlines that need to be met.
Multitasking: What to Do, What Not to Do
If you’re going to have to multitask, you might as well do it the best you can. Here are some “dos and don’ts” to get the most out of your multitasking.
Use a Task Management Tool
If you’re going to jump around and try and do more than one thing at a time, then it makes sense to have a task management tool to plan and manage those tasks. The last thing you want to do is have all those tasks bouncing around in your head. If you don’t collect them, you’re going to forget some. We know that whether you’re at home or at work, there is more to do in a day than you can ever get accomplished. That’s why it’s crucial for a person to manage their tasks and their time wisely.
The first thing you want to do with your task management tool is to gather all those tasks in a task list. You can set due dates, so you know when they absolutely must be complete. You can create personal task lists, but maybe you can share task lists too, which would be great for work or collaborative activities.
Tasks can be easily updated as you progress or finish them. Ideally, you can also update the task status from wherever you are on any mobile device. With a task management tool, everything is stored in one place, which then frees up your brain to multitask as it sees fit.
When balancing numerous tasks, it’s essential to automate reminders. You could use a task management tool, but even your phone likely has a setting to help you set up reminders. Again, it’s all about freeing your mind to focus more on the tasks. The worst thing you can do is keep this information in your head. If you don’t write it down, you’ll forget it.
Note the deadline, and then automate a notification or a series of notifications to remind you when that deadline is coming up. Chances are, as you get involved in one task, you’ll lose track of time and other work might suffer.
Break Down Tasks
The worst thing you can do is look at your work as a giant mass overshadowing everything. You’re going to get intimidated at best and, at worst, you’ll be paralyzed. That’s why it’s important to break down large tasks into smaller, digestible chunks.
You can work on several tasks at once, and if they’re small enough, then they’re going to remain manageable. Try to look at your work as pieces of a larger whole. Then put them into the crucible of your mind and break them down to their essential parts. Those parts are your tasks. Some of those tasks might be dependent or related, so you can work on those that are linked together in a sequence, one at a time, to eventually accomplish the larger task.
Use Downtime Wisely
You’ve just finished a task. Now it’s Miller time! Hey, celebrations are great, but they should only come when you’re actually done with the larger work, not after every step you take in working towards completion. Downtime is a period to refresh your batteries, sure, but it also can help you be a better multitasker.
One problem with multitasking is how it messes with your memory. Therefore, during downtime, you want to review your work and make sure you’ve not forgotten some crucial element or fact or detail. Maybe you can do this during your commute, if you have one, or while eating lunch or taking a coffee break.
Also, treat break time and true downtime differently. When you’re off work, at home or on vacation, really do put work aside. That will help you rest your mind, refresh your body, and be better charged for the work ahead.
Keep Tasks in Sight
Chances are that it’s busy where you work, so to successfully multitask, you must develop a method to reign in the chaos and add order to your work environment. One sure way to keep you on track as you work on multiple tasks at once is to keep your task list clearly visible.
Keeping your task list visible is a good way to stay on top of your work because it shows you what must get done and what can be delayed. You can do this by prioritizing your task list. Use color-coding or underlining to highlight the most critical jobs if you’re using the old fashioned paper list. Or, if you’re using software, let the tools help you stay on top of the most important tasks, and the ones that are due soon. Whatever you do, keep that task list in always in operation.
Choose What to Multitask and What Not to Multitask
Okay, we’ve bent over backwards to note that multitasking isn’t the ideal way to get work done. But when are you ever in an ideal setting? If you wait for one to materialize, your work will never get done.
The worst thing you can do is believe that all tasks are created equally. They’re not. Therefore, it’s up to you to look over and evaluate tasks prior to starting them. Some tasks are just going to require your full attention. If you try to multitask while doing these involved tasks, then everything that’s wrong with multitasking will prove true. So, give those involved tasks your undivided attention.
The tasks that are routine, familiar or easy are the tasks that you should multitask. By planning and divvying up tasks, and by knowing which can be multitasked and which cannot, you’ll be a task-achieving machine.
If you’re looking for a task management tool to help you multitask, ProjectManager.com gives you that and so much more. ProjectManager.com is a cloud-based project management software that provides you with real-time data, so you always know the progress of your work. It helps with planning, too, and offers a collaborative platform to help you multitask with others to be even more productive. See how it can help you by taking this free 30-day trial.