Stop thinking you can multitask – you can’t – and it’s killing your productivity.
If you walked into any workplace and asked office managers what one of their biggest pain points is, you’d overwhelmingly hear this answer:
“I need to figure out how to improve productivity.”
We – office managers, employees, and executives alike – know this is a problem. But how do you actually fix it?
It’s simple in theory but difficult in execution – quit multitasking.
Why is multitasking so bad?
On the surface, being able to multitask seems like an invaluable resume builder. After all, what kind of company wouldn’t want an employee who’s capable of not only running the sales team, but acting as VP of Product, too?
The problem isn’t holding multiple roles – even those with a narrowly-defined role can suffer from the ills of multitasking. Rather, issues arise when you’re faced with tackling multiple problems at once, forcing your mind to constantly switch context as you jump from project to project.
At this point, work quality inevitably goes down. There’s no getting around that fact, either, as it’s backed up by science.
“When [multitaskers] are in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal,” said Anthony Wagner, an associate professor of psychology.
The Stanford study is fascinating, and Wagner’s quote just begins to scratch the surface of what those researchers learned about the minds of so-called “multitaskers.”
To briefly summarize the study, researchers divided their test subjects into two groups – those who regularly multitask and those who don’t. Those two groups were then given the same three tests. The tests were simple. Subjects were asked to look at sets of red rectangles surrounded by a variable amount of blue rectangles. They were told to ignore the blue rectangles and only focus on whether or not the red rectangles remained in the same position each time they saw an image.
The subject who multitasked regularly failed miserably at this test. The blue rectangles distracted them too much, taking their focus away from the task at hand.
Let these points from their research sink in:
Researchers set up three tests and divided their test subjects into two groups: those who regularly multitask and those who don’t.In the first test, each subject was shown sets of red rectangles surrounded by a variable amount of blue rectangles. They were told to ignore the blue rectangles and only focus on whether or not the red rectangles remained in the same position in each slide.
In the first test, each subject was shown sets of red rectangles surrounded by a variable amount of blue rectangles. They were told to ignore the blue rectangles and only focus on whether or not the red rectangles remained in the same position in each slide.
Subjects who regularly multitasked failed miserably – the blue rectangles distracted them too much, taking their focus away from their task at hand.
Multitaskers don’t do many jobs at a high level; rather, they perform many tasks at a passable level. You only need to look at a number of meetings a number of through daily to visualize the competing demands on the average employee, let alone one who has a hard time saying “no”.
The key takeaway from the Stanford study – and information in general regarding multitasking – is that multitasking and productivity do not go hand-in-hand. In fact, they are mutually exclusive.
How do I stop multitasking?
This is the money question, and one to which there’s no real concrete answer. Not because it’s an impossible task, but rather, due to how different employees are from company to company, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to get rid of the multitasking habits plaguing your office.
This is the money question and one to which there’s no real concrete answer. Not because it’s an impossible task, but rather, due to how different employees are from company to company, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to getting rid of the multitasking habits plaguing your office.
What exists, though, are guidelines, tips, and tricks you can incorporate to form your own strategy to improve productivity and quit dealing with the headaches that result from trying to do too much at once.
Integrate the right tech
The right technology in your office can drastically change your productivity levels. Here at Teem, for example, our integration with Alexa has helped us become more efficient in scheduling and managing meetings. Technology that automates repetitive tasks is what you should be looking for. That need for automation led to the creation of the Zombie Meetings feature within Teem. Zombie Meetings are the ones that remain on the company schedule long after they’re needed or attended. Normally, you’d have to manually remove the meeting – if anyone noticed the clutter it created at all – but with Zombie Meetings, those “dead” spaces on your meeting calendar are automatically removed.
Now, it’s also important to look at what could be the downside to automation technology, and workplace tech in general. Take Slack, for example. It’s an incredibly effective, powerful, and useful inter-office communication tool – but it just as easily can drain productivity and get your mind focused on something not even remotely related to the task you need to accomplish.
Get rid of the bad habits
Bad habits at the office – and at home – trap workers in a rut. Breaking out of that rut is hard, but if you can successfully get rid of the bad habits in your office, you’ll cut down on the amount of multitasking that occurs.
For example, we know that the following things trigger inefficienct work days:
- Excessive social media use
- A cluttered office
- Bad posture
- Unclear workflows
- Constant in-office distractions
These aren’t all the triggers for inefficiency, but they’re the ones over which employers have the most direct control. To mitigate these events, you should employ some of the following tactics.
Curbing excessive social media use:
If this is a true problem in your office, then consider adding social media breaks to your office workday. Per research reported on in Entrepreneur, “By giving employees the chance to unplug from work mode, companies are starting to see a positive impact — the June 2016 survey from Pew Research Center found that 54 percent of employees agreed that social media breaks helped them recharge at work.”
Everyone will have different opinions on what counts as a cluttered office. If you’re hearing complaints about it often enough – or you feel that your own workspace is overflowing – then this slide deck from Forbes is a great place to learn how to start decluttering your office.
How can you, from an employer standpoint, fix posture? Isn’t that something dependent on your employees?
The answer is yes and no. You can help eliminate the possibilities for bad posture – and therefore long bouts of lost productivity – by implementing ergonomic desks, chairs, and furniture into your office.
Something as simple as upgrading office chairs to something designed specifically with ergonomics in mind – the Haworth Lotus comes to mind – changes posture and will eventually lead to increased productivity.
Affecting management, executive, and entry-level employees alike, unclear workflows leads to time lost while an employee tries to figure out exactly what they’re supposed to do with a certain task.
What you should really look for, though, is a workflow management solution that produces concise, clear reports that match your KPIs. Perfect Forms has an entire blog post dedicated to this topic, and it’s worth the read.
The key takeaway from that article is that your workflow management should produce reports that match your company’s KPIs. If it doesn’t, then that means your workflow management solution isn’t efficient. Inefficiency is just another way to say lost productivity.
Constant In-Office Distractions
The open-office design theme has its advantages, but its most glaring issue is the fact that it doesn’t allow for distraction-free areas where employees can quickly finish work.
That’s where activity-based workplaces make a big difference. They strike the middle ground between the open office and cubicle farm designs, giving employees the choice to work in certain parts of the office based on the type of task they’re completing.
At the end of the day, improving productivity by eliminating multitasking comes down to a culture change. Executives need to lead by example, and it’s not a bad idea to implement a rewards program for employees who lose weight, use social media less, and have a clean office space.
What it all really boils down to, though, is this: remember that multitasking and productivity don’t exist while the other is present. If you truly want to be the most effective worker you can be, don’t pile too much on your plate.