Multitasking is Madness. 10 Tips to Stop

by Brad Isaac on May 15, 2008

“If you can’t ride two horses at once, you shouldn’t be in the circus.” – American Proverb multitasking_wearing_hats

Barbara Bartlein from the People Pro posted an article about the harmful effect of multitasking on your productivity. She points out how researchers warn of several problems with multitasking aside from decreased productivity including increased stress, stomach aches, and headaches

University of Illinois study of Microsoft workers reports that each time a person gets distracted, it takes a full 15 minutes to get back on track. Put another way, for each time your email dings with a new message, whether it’s a dire emergency or a picture of a cat with a melon skin on it’s head, it costs you dearly in lost time.

With the productivity losses incurred from multitasking, Barbara listed out 4 main ways to combat it:

1. Accurately estimate the time to complete tasks.

For one day, write down all the tasks you have to accomplish and estimate the time needed. Then truthfully time yourself. You will be able to find the percentage that you routinely underestimate and can adjust your work schedule.

2. Use external memory as much as possible.

Albert Einstein once said that he keeps nothing in his mind that can be easily retrieved from paper. A cluttered brain makes it much more difficult to be creative and productive. External memory can be as simple as a pad of paper or using technology more effectively. Use the calendar on your computer to remind you of important dates or appointments and quick lists to organize your tasks.

3. Batch your work. Rather than checking e-mail multiple times per day, set times for reading and responding. Let your phone go to voice mail, if possible, and return phone calls during a specific time. Put similar tasks together, like paying bills and balancing your checking account, to increase efficiency.

4. Remove distractions. Control interruptions and noise. If the workplace is loud, discuss with co-workers ways to control the volume. Set times for consultation or questions rather than allowing unlimited access to your time. And make sure you don’t “interrupt yourself” by running to get more coffee or making a quick phone call. Use “butt glue” until the task is completed.

They are all very good suggestions, however, I am torn on using the external memory as much as possible. I think it’s important to use both your brain’s memory as well as your computer’s memory. We are becoming so used to looking into the Google oracle that we might be losing some of our natural memory ability or at least sending it into hibernation. To combat this, I still use flashcards to test my memory on an almost daily basis.

Here are 6 of my own tips from my goody bag of staying focused and productive:

  1. Repeat a Productive Mantra - As you work, try repeating the phrase “I will complete this task 100%” or you might choose “100%” as your mantra. Drive a wedge deep into your brain about how important it is to achieve 100% on a task. Five tasks 1/2 done are useless compared to one task completed 100%. This is also a good visualization strategy. When you are thinking about your goals and the steps needed to complete them, think “How can I complete task A 100% today?” It gives you a direction and focus.It may sound corny, but there’s the old song “One day at a time sweet Jesus”. Sometimes I find myself humming “One task at a time sweet Jesus.” That may not be for everyone, but it is a powerful reminder to keep my eyes focused clearly ahead.
  2. Get back in the game faster - If you fall of track as the Microsoft workers did, do you really need to be off track for a full 15 minutes? Of course not. You can get back on the horse in 30 seconds if you stay alert. Therefore, make a note to yourself to be alert to when you are off track and then get back to the original task as fast as you can. Make it a game. Shoot for 100% completion. This will require some dedication on your part to develop it as a habit. But as time goes on it gets easier with practice.
  3. Seal your environment - I like to call this tip sealing the environment. This means closing off all distractions by arranging your physical environment. What works good for me is to seal myself off from distractions with these 4 steps:
    1. Close office door – Nothing distracts like other people busting in with their immediate demands. I’m as guilty of doing this others as others are of doing it to me. But one universal symbol of DND (do not disturb) is a closed door. At least with a door closed, they typically knock, allowing you the freedom of finishing up a thought or setting a reminder to get back on task in 5 minutes.
    2. Adopt an earplug strategy – Noise gets me every time. Whether it’s my daughter singing Going to the chapel at the top of her lungs or a server fan going bad, noise can take the wind out of my sails. For these occasions, I keep earplugs nearby so I can pop them in and get to work. Sometimes in-ear headphones will do the trick too as long as the music isn’t too distracting. It might surprise you that I can still carry on a brief conversation while wearing earplugs. They also send a visual cue to my people that I am busy and don’t want to be distracted. So when they see me wearing them, they often turn and go the other way – or they at least keep our impromptu meeting short.
    3. Sit at a different seat – If I really need to get in the zone and my mind isn’t cooperating, I change my environment entirely. I will turn my chair around facing the opposite direction. I’ll stand at a countertop or place my materials on a bookcase and work from there. I’ll go work in my car with the radio off if I have to. The important thing is breaking the cycle of distraction through environmental change.
    4. Turn off gadgetry – Set your phone, computer and PDA to the off position and prepare for takeoff.
  4. Shoot for 100% completion of each task before moving on - When did it ever become acceptable to 1/2 finish a task before moving on? For as long as I can remember, my family called that doing something half-assed. Sure, that term doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it is motivating in a way. From now on, shoot for 100% on any task you start. Following Barbara’s tip from above, see if you can estimate how long your task will take before you start. Based on that estimate do you have enough time to finish 100%? If not, pick a task you can complete in the time you have and don’t stop until it’s done.There’s something wonderful about 100%. It’s the relief of a job well done – a job done completely. Shoot for 100% and you can look back at your days feeling as though you were successful.
  5. Keep your eye out for boring - All tasks can get boring or tedious. At the point of boredom it’s easy to move on to something else. When you get stuck or bored, try to work through the problem instead of jumping on email or something easy. Not everything you do can be easy – especially when your goals get bigger and brighter. There is some hard work ahead, some of it is boring. Just be aware that boredom can be a trick – don’t fall for it. Fight your way through boredom and there is light on the other side.
  6. Unplug Your Internet connection - Internet take me away! Surfing, Facebook, Google; they can all take you away from what you are doing. Remember the Microsoft study – all it takes is a beep or boop and you’ve lost 15 minutes. Solution? Unplug your Internet cable. Granted, this can be difficult for some IT workers. But by disconnecting the Internet connection over a “break” and turning off your phone for an hour during lunch can be some of the most productive time you have all day.

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Jorge May 20, 2008 at 2:47 am

Excellent article!

woog June 17, 2008 at 2:38 am



Sorry for shouting. It’s just… yeah.

Brad Isaac June 17, 2008 at 12:18 pm

Thanks for your advice. Do you have any recommendations for alternatives to the list post?

January 12, 2009 at 8:07 am

In order to multitask you have to get so good at doing one task that you can do it almost automatically and then get so good at another task that you can do that task almost automatically. That way you can switch between doing the two different tasks without having to get a mental start right from the beginning but can just jump in from the middle and switch from one to another.

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