Well, the research keeps pouring in, and the results are conclusive: for professionals who bill for time, multi tasking doesn’t work. In fact, the latest studies show that, when we try to engage with a series of tasks simultaneously, we create a variety of short- and long-term problems for ourselves that hinder productivity and, over time, may actually damage our mental capacities.
To begin, let’s get rid of the term “multitasking”. When you have a number of projects that you’re trying to work on simultaneously, what you’re actually doing is task switching. When we play word games like that, it looks like we’re putting too fine of a point on the thing but, when you actually look at brain physiology, you quickly understand the reason for the differentiation.
As you consume new information, the data goes to your brain’s pre-frontal cortex. It germinates there for a little while, in the short-term memory, until your brain decides that the information is important enough to commit to long-term recall.
The pre-frontal cortex has two discreet hemispheres that alternate control of whatever undertakings you’re into at any given time. Each side is able to track a task, but they can’t do it simultaneously.
And the kicker is this: whichever task you’ve decided is the most important undertaking at that time is the one that gets the nearly undivided attention. The other hemisphere can gather information related to a different task, but your short term recall, the stuff that you need in order to create long term memory, will be significantly diminished.
Why does this matter?
Miller’s Law (1956) shows that at any given time, we’re only able to store between five and nine pieces of information in our short-term memory. In order to get information into our long-term memory, the place in the brain where information can be recalled and synthesized into new ideas, the types of clever solutions to problems that so many of us pride ourselves on being able to create, it has to be properly processed by the short-term memory. If that doesn’t happen, the information doesn’t stick and is, consequently, useless to you. In reality, task switching makes you less effective, not more.
And if you’re trying to work on more than two topics at once? Forget about retaining any meaningful information at all. If you try to handle more than two tasks, you’re doomed to forget important information and to make otherwise avoidable mistakes. Your brain just doesn’t work that way and it can’t be trained to do so.
At any age.
Feel free to use this information in the next conversation about homework and various open application windows that you have with your children. They’re certain to be impressed.
And here’s another fun little snippet related to the whole brain physiology thing:
Task switching tricks your body into thinking that it needs to be in a constant state of readiness. That takes your body to a very primitive place; something on par with the good, (very) old-fashioned fight or flight response. In this heightened state, your body produces increased levels of adrenaline and related chemicals designed to help you survive the coming stress. Over time, this prolonged exposure can lead to other, more serious, health issues like heart disease and short- and long-term memory loss.
So, beyond this “may, or may not happen in the future” stuff, what are the more immediate impacts? How does this effect my bottom line?
There are many impacts, but let’s take a quick look at two.
Your work efficiency drops.
Task switching makes you stupid.
First, efficiency. How does a drop of as much as 40% in productivity strike you?
Going back to the hemispheres of the pre-frontal cortex, you know that each side is capable of holding two tasks in place at once. Only one task can get the most attention at any given time. Now, your brain can move back and forth between the tasks pretty quickly – it really only takes a fraction of a second to change gears – but, when you switch major ideas, it typically takes your brain as much as twenty-five minutes to reorient itself to the new task. Because of the resulting lag in efficiency, research indicates that as much as 40% of your day may be lost.
That’s a big deal.
Now what’s all this about task switching making you stupid?
Research also shows that, when you task switch, your IQ drops by as many as fifteen points. This drop lowers your problem solving capacities to those of the average eight year old. Do you really think that it’s a good idea to have your eight year old son sending that important email?
So there must be a better way, right?
Of course there is. Here are a couple of really simple behavioral changes that you can implement right away to improve your productivity.
Try working in times during the day to exercise, even if that means squeezing a few minutes out of the day for a short walk. Just a little bit of movement, fifteen to twenty minutes, provides your brain with a jolt of energy that will allow you to rekindle your focus.
Control the amount of noise around you. If noise distracts you, try to create a quiet space. Some of us, however, are bothered by the silence. If you fall into this category, try out a little background music. Just make sure that whatever you’re listening to doesn’t have any lyrics, because your brain will try to join in the singing…
And here is a list of strategies that will help you use your time more effectively so that you can focus on one important task at a time.
Use the 80/20 rule. The majority of your task efficacy – as much as 80% – happens in only 20% of your work day. Identify which of your daily tasks yield the most effective results and schedule them early. Then tackle them one task at a time. Prioritizing tasks and working on the most important ones first will help relieve the anxiety that many of us feel when we get deeper into the day and see unfinished business still looming ahead of us. This can give you the sense of accomplishment that checking items off a list can bring and help you feel more in control of your work day.
Batch. Dedicate specific times of the work day for certain tasks. For tasks like tracking time, making phone calls, texting, checking voicemail or answering email, set aside specific times in your day and stick to it. If you set aside discreet time for these tasks, you take them off of the table for other parts of the day. This frees you up to focus on other projects.
Block out segments of the day. If you are trying to cut out the habit of task switching, you need to put something else in place. This ought to include blocking out discreet portions of the day in which you are working on only one task at a time. For many of us, this one will be hard to put in place. It might be best to take a baby steps approach here; try initially setting aside an hour per task, and building from there.
Of course, we need to acknowledge that we live in the Real World. And the realities of the Real World are a little more complicated than batching and blocking out time. In the Real World, the need for task switching is imposed and reinforced by our clients and co-workers – it just isn’t practical to imagine that it could be eliminated entirely. So, with that in mind, it’s important to recognize that the impact of task switching might be larger than you think – and make changes whenever possible.
And by using BigTime to track your productivity, you can make this happen more easily.
BigTime helps you track time easily so that the details affecting billing won’t be lost as task switching occurs. Reducing the amount of time devoted to billing means that the process is less likely to be interrupted. BigTime’s reporting features can help CPAs more easily see the big picture – some clients and services may impose more task switching than others – having data that shows who the main offenders are lets you explore whether or not it is worth keeping these customers on.
So, where do we go from here?
Start by recognizing that constantly task switching just doesn’t work. Once you’ve done that, let BigTime help you carefully map the realities of how you spend your time – and be willing to take a good, hard look at the areas of your day where you are the least effective. Then, resolve to change.
Because, in a competitive world, you can’t afford not to be your best.