Take Back Control: Designate a Multitasking-Free Zone

by Shana Montesol Johnson

multitaskingAre you feeling overwhelmed by work? Frazzled?  Frustrated?  Tired?  Muddled?

Ask yourself: How much multitasking have you been doing lately?

If you’re like most people (myself included), you’ve probably been doing quite a bit of multitasking, just to keep your head above water.  You skim your emails while on the phone with a project team member.  You edit a proposal while you’re (half) listening to the conference call with Headquarters.  You check your news feed while developing the project budget.

Yet multitasking is a myth. We may think we’re doing multiple things at once, but we’re actually just doing one thing at a time, shifting focus from one thing to another in rapid succession.

And while we assume we’re being more efficient this way, shifting tasks is actually bad for productivity. When we move back and forth from one task to another – either because we lose focus and change to something more interesting, or because someone else interrupts us – we lose time.  The switching slows us down. One 2005 study found that when people were interrupted and moved from one task to another (which occurred about once every 11 minutes!) it took about 25 minutes to get back to that same project. (I believe it — during the course of writing this blog post, I’ve answered a couple of emails, responded to an instant message, checked the news on unrest in Egypt, updated my Facebook status, and filed some tax documents.  I guess if I hadn’t done all those things, I’d be done with this blog post by now, right?)

The cost of multitasking goes beyond productivity, though.  Research has also shown that it leads to greater levels of stress, frustration, and time pressure.

We’ve already got plenty of stress, frustration, and time pressure in our work lives, thank you very much.  Why add to it by multitasking?

Take some pressure off yourself. Declare an hour, or an afternoon, as a multitasking-free zone.  (You can start with 30 minutes if you’re a true multitasking addict.)  Eliminate interruptions, both the kind you generate as well as the type created by those around you.  Disconnect from Wi-Fi, put your cell phone on silent, and close your office door.  Or better yet, relocate to an empty conference room or the café down the street.  Use this time to focus on one task, preferably one that requires concentration and creativity, such as writing or problem-solving.

At the end of your multitasking-free period, you will likely find you’ve accomplished more and feel more in control than if you had spent the same amount of time of time frantically switching between tasks.

You may even get hooked on this interruption-free zone. One of my former coaching clients routinely scheduled a couple of hours a week for to work without distractions in her office’s conference room, and trained her staff not to interrupt her except in case of a true emergency.  She found this practice critical to getting her work done and feeling more in control of her time.  You might, too.

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Joanne Weston


Thanks for reminding us that less is often more! I was thinking about your post this morning (whilst multitasking!) and reflected that certainly attempting simultaneous tasks can be counter productive such as IM chatting while trying to write a proposal. However, I do find that consciously leaving a project, taking care of something else, then coming back often reinvigorates me. I have an MBTI preference for Perceiving so having the flexibility to spontaneously attend to other tasks is one of my energisors. For me, it’s about finding the right balance.

Now back to that blog post ….



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