Multitasking has become one of the foremost qualities that employers seek in job candidates. While most of us like to think of ourselves as capable and efficient at handling multiple tasks at the same time, the truth is most people suck at it.
Just take a walk down any busy street and you’ll likely see dozens of people weaving back and forth and veering off course while staring at their smartphones. That’s right — most of us are unable to perform even an automatic behavior like walking when our attention is diverted to another activity.
And that is the problem with multitasking. While being able to perform multiple things simultaneously may seem like an efficient approach, your attention is divided among the variety of tasks at hand, PLUS the act of switching among them. In the end, each task takes longer to complete and the chance for mistakes is higher.
Research conducted by Baylor University backs that up.
“Conscious mental activity happens one activity at a time,” says Anne Grinols, assistant dean for faculty development and college initiatives in Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business. Grinols is author of the 2014 study, Multitasking with Smartphones in the College Classroom.
As she explains: “If a student texts during a lecture — or an employee texts during a meeting — the information being taught or discussed will be lost to the one who is texting. People going back and forth between two conscious mental activities (assimilating information on one topic, and both assimilating and creating information on a completely different one) lose some time and efficiency of brain function that robs them of effective accomplishment of one activity, or both.”
Stop Switching Gears with Task Batching
Task batching is an effective technique that can improve the outcomes of your activities. Batching is the act of grouping similar tasks — those that require related processes, resources and thinking.
Working in batches improves your ability to concentrate and saves time by eliminating the mental delay that takes place as you switch from task to another, as well as the physical delay in the tools that you use (e.g., bringing up your inbox to respond to an email). Being able to focus on one type of activity at a time also gets you into a flow that streamlines your day so that it ends on a positive note with a feeling of accomplishment.
Most of us have regular tasks that can be batched for better efficiency and focus, such as email, online research, phone calls, administrative tasks, bill paying, tech maintenance, reading, social media… the list goes on.
Combine Task Batching and Scheduling
Incorporate batching into your daily schedule by setting aside blocks of time to concentrate on each type of task or activity. For instance, if you schedule an hour a day for email, set aside all other distractions and focus solely on reading, writing and responding to email during that time. If you’re part of a remote team or have clients or bosses who require quicker response to email, try scheduling smaller time batches throughout the day (e.g., 9:00-9:30, 12:00-12:30, 3:00-3:30, 6:00-6:30).
When planning your batched tasks, remember to schedule those that require higher levels of attention (i.e., writing) early in the workday when your ability to concentrate is strong, and those that require less mental focus, such as phone calls, later in the day.
The beauty of batching is that it works for work-related tasks as well as personal chores like shopping, cooking, cleaning and running errands. For instance, you can save a great deal of time during the workweek by setting aside a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon to prep and freeze your meals for the upcoming week.