The Multitasking Myth: Why Context Switching Actually Slows You Down

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Let’s talk about the multitasking myth that so many of us have bought into! What’s that, you wonder?

Well, that multitasking myth makes us believe that we are saving time, getting more done, and generally being productive when we juggle multiple things at one time.

But, here’s the hard truth: as much as we’d like to think otherwise, the reality is that multitasking isn’t efficient or productive. In fact, the multitasking myth is so false that we are actually losing time and efficiency when we try to accomplish more than one thing at a time.  

The main culprit that makes the multitasking myth false is this pesky phenomenon called context switching.

I first learned about context switching during the 90 Day Year program, and believe me, as a devout upholder of the multitasking myth, I wasn’t convinced at first.

Here’s the basic premise on context switching: When you’re multitasking, there is a hard cost to your productivity as your brain constantly switches back and forth between the task. In fact, Todd Herman, the creator of the 90 Day Year, argues that you lose 20% of productivity for every hour you spend juggling tasks instead of just focusing on one thing.

As I mentioned, I was not convinced that this whole productivity loss thing applied to me. I thought, “I’m a master multitasker, so surely I’m not suffering at the evil hands of this so-called context switching.”

But I was convinced by my then boss to give it a try. To be honest, I was blown away by the results.

By focusing on a single task for a concentrated amount of time, I was able to accomplish so much more in less time and with higher quality results.

I have slowly integrated this into my everyday routine — which has been especially valuable now that I’m a service-based business owner.

Here are a few ways to kick the multitasking myth to the curb and avoid context switching each day:

#1. Stay Out of the Inbox

How often have you said, “I’ll just reply to one email” and then looked up and two hours have passed?

I’d honestly love to be one of those people who only checks once a day, but that just isn’t realistic for me with so many clients to serve. Instead, I focus on being as strategic as possible with how I handle the hundreds of emails I receive each day.

My first strategy is to focus on my priorities for the day before diving into the inbox for any substantial length of time. I do a quick 15-minute check for anything truly urgent at the start of my day but more focused, extended time comes far later after I’ve crossed some essential items off the list for the day.

I also let technology do some of the heavy lifting when it comes to sorting and processing emails. I use Gmail’s Priority Inbox setup so that my emails are broken into four categories:

  1. Clients
  2. Project Management Notifications
  3. Team
  4. Everything Else

Using a combination of labels and filters, this allows me to segregate emails based on who they are coming from in a way that helps serve my productivity. This setup makes it easier for me to quickly scan any emails from my clients or team without getting sucked into the full email vortex!

In general, I batch my email tasks so that I am only in my inbox for focused bursts of time rather than popping in and out all throughout the day. I find this makes it much more efficient for me to get back to people in a timely fashion while still not taking over my day.

#2. Turn Off Notifications

Whether it’s social media, Slack, email, or texts, notifications are an easy way to break your focus. The multitasking myth argues that it’s important we know exactly what’s going on at any given moment and that it won’t impact our ability to focus if we see who sent that text or email.

But the reality is that what all those little pings accomplish is splitting your focus and drawing you out of what you were working on.

Consider turning off any and all notifications during your work sessions. You’ll find it much easier to stay on task and get things completed efficiently without them!

Pro-tip: If you have children and worry about being available for daycare or school calls, see if your phone has a setting that allows repeated calls to break through the silent setting. Then, include a request to call more than once in a row if you don’t answer on your call list for the school or daycare. Or, make sure the second person on the call list knows to call more than once in a row if you don’t answer on the first call.

#3. Focus on One Client or Project at a Time

I’m usually doing work for 7 to 10 retainer clients on any given day — which can feel like chaos. To help manage this, I do my best to batch client’s tasks for the day together.

Then, I wrap up each day with a list of priorities for each client. Although we use project management software to coordinate ongoing projects, I love to do these daily lists on paper.

I prioritize by due date and type of work throughout the day. I like working on rote tasks towards the end of the day, for instance, so, if I can, I leave those for later.

It’s not always a perfect system, but completing all the day’s tasks for client A before diving into the work for client B helps me be way more efficient.

The same logic applies if you’re working on projects instead of clients. The multitasking myth tempts us to have multiple projects going at any one time, but you’re far more likely to complete things quickly and efficiently if you focus on one project at a time.

#4. Set up an Environment for Success

Since it’s already somewhat chaotic juggling multiple clients and types of tasks in a given day, I take a few minutes to set my work environment each morning.

Consider things like:

  • Clearing your desk of clutter.
  • Clearing your office of clutter.
  • Having your favorite supplies on hand and accessible.
  • Setting up a music playlist that supports focus.
  • Planning your breaktimes or meal times to help ensure you’re rested and energized for work.

Taking some time at the start of your day to set yourself up for success is well worth the time investment in the long run!

Are You Ready to Give Focused Work a Try?

If you’re ready to stop subscribing to the multitasking myth, consider one small change you can integrate into your routine this week. Small, incremental habit changes are generally easier to implement and sustain than throwing your entire routine out the window and starting again!

Pick one area that context switching may be impacting your productivity, and ask yourself how you can focus on one task, project, or item on your to-do list instead.

The multitasking myth that tells us we can do all the things at once is, in fact, slowing us down. Here are tips to help you stop context switching.

What kind of entrepreneur are you?


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