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Master Multitasking, Improve Productivity

Blurry mulitpile hands conveying concept of multitasking at computer and desk

Editor's Note: The Cardinal at Work Insider received the following comment in response to this article published on July 3, 2017.

"In my work with students, I have found that many of them think they can multitask effectively—they often write papers or work on problem sets while switching back and forth between texting, email, and other media. However, research conducted here at Stanford shows that these multitaskers aren’t effective at all. In fact, they suffer from diminished memory and ability to concentrate compared to monotaskers. The brain can’t effectively focus on multiple tasks at once, and students’ productivity suffers when they try to do so. I share this research with my students and help them adopt strategies to avoid multitasking, such as the Pomodoro technique. This time management technique involves breaking time into intervals of focused, distraction-free work followed by short breaks in which one can text or check email. I also introduce them to apps, like Forest, and other online tools that can help them stay focused. Students are always amazed at how much more they can accomplish by mono-tasking. I also incorporate mono-tasking techniques into my own work, and I find that I am much more productive as a result!”

Tim Randazzo, Ph.D.
Associate Director of Graduate Teaching and Peer Learning Programs
Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning
Stanford University

Originally Published July 3, 2017

Think you're good at multitasking? Perhaps you can whiz through emails while on a conference call and move to the next task energized and accomplished.  However, you may not be as efficient as you think.

In today’s working world it seems multitasking is a must-have skill, yet many employees feel overwhelmed with too many tasks. A study conducted by Stanford researchers shows people that use several forms of electronic media at the same time such as email, instant messaging and talking on the phone, actually do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to the next as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.

Contrary to popular belief, multitasking is actually a skill that you can learn. To strengthen your multitasking muscle, the American Management Association (AMA) recommends exercising the following techniques to give your multitasking skills a boost:

Practice, practice, practice

The saying “practice makes perfect” definitely applies to mastering your multitasking skills. Practice makes something routine and less stressful. Take a look at your daily tasks and select a few of those tasks to start with. After mastering doing several routine tasks, then gradually incorporate slightly more difficult tasks into your routine. Remember that learning takes time. The goal is to take a step back, and teach your mind and body how to perform tasks at the productivity level you desire.

Know when a task requires laser focus

Your brain can be compared to a computer. If you are working on multiple programs and have several windows open on your screen at the same time, your computer may have a higher tendency of freezing or operating a bit slower than usual. The same can be said for your brain.

When you are working on multiple tasks that require your undivided attention, your brain can get overloaded. Do not multitask if the assignment requires your complete focus. Once you’ve completed that task, then you can return to multitasking other routine tasks. This approach may save you time from making mistakes and rework.

Use tools to help you multitask

It’s important to write down items so you can refer to them quickly and avoid taxing your brain. Take advantage of University IT training courses on a variety of project management and efficiency tools, like Jabber, to help you become more productive.

Take a brain break 

Are you guilty of working through your lunch or skipping your breaks? Rest is a key component to increasing your personal energy and productivity. Here are some tips:

  • Every two to three hours, take a break from multitasking to allow yourself to focus your energy on a single task for 15 to 20 minutes. To consistently function at peak levels, regular breaks are recommended.
  • Use your break time as an opportunity to give your mind a true break from the stresses of the day.
  • Take an outdoor stroll or walk up and down some stairs to get refreshed, both in your mind and physically.

For more tips and techniques to improve your multitasking skills and increase your productivity, visit the LinkedIn Learning site to watch videos and other resources.

Learning at Stanford