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Before entering into the subject of task switching, we need to talk about multitasking. Multitasking is performing different tasks simultaneously. Many professionals believe they are multitasking when, in fact, they are task switching. Neither is great for productivity. 

According to the American Psychological Association, three types of multitasking exist.

Classic multitasking: this is when you are genuinely performing more than one task at once. An example of this is talking on the phone while making notes. This works.

Rapid task switching: this means moving quickly from one task to another. Translating could be described as an activity that involves rapid task switching.

Interrupted task switching: here you are moving from one task to another while the initial task is still pending. This is what most of us are doing when we think we are multitasking.

None of us are immune to task switching or problem switching. The problem is that it’s estimated that only two out of 100 people can do it well. The vast majority of us are losing productivity. Our brains can’t maintain focus for long periods without wandering. And the problem is anything but benign. Task switching can cost us up to 80 percent of our productive time, according to celebrated computer scientist and psychologist Gerald Weinberg.

Inc., estimates the cost of lost productivity due to multitasking at $450 billion! While the costs of individuals task switching are usually almost invisible, the problems become clearer when we consider that most people require around 25 minutes to recover from an interruption. Heavy task switchers can temporarily lower their IQs by as much as 15 points. Task switchers tend to complete work more slowly and make more mistakes.

If that wasn’t bad enough, task switching is one of the leading causes of stress in the workplace. Its related effects include deteriorating health and lack of work satisfaction.

Internal and external task switching

Internal causes of task switching include email alerts or text messages. Even taking a few seconds to check social media can cost you more productivity than you realize because you are allowing the erosion of your concentration. External factors include being interrupted by a colleague. It’s nice to be asked if you want a cup of coffee, but imagine if you could get through the day with killer focus instead.

After an interruption, it takes most people at least a few minutes to resume previous levels of concentration. If interruptions are successive and continuous, we end up redirecting our attention continuously too, which can lead to exhaustion and underperformance.

Limiting the effects of task switching

  • Group relevant tasks: task switching might be inevitable, but its effects can be regulated if we group relevant tasks. This allows the brain to stay in touch with the task at hand, moving flawlessly between closely related activities. For example, when writing an article about birds, you may switch to performing the relevant research from time to time. It’s still task switching, but you can stay on point throughout the successive tasks because it’s all about the birds.
  • Plan: assign specific days of your workweek to particular tasks. For example, you could make Monday meeting day. Tuesday is for research. Wednesday is for writing. To stay focused, group tasks related to one project.
  • Turn off notifications: Email notifications and other incoming messages are some of the most disruptive agents in professional life. Vibrating phones and email pop-ups cause you to focus on them instead of the task in hand. Once you’ve seen or heard them, part of you wants to know what’s arrived. That part of you is no longer concentrating. If you allocate certain times of the day for your emails and phone use, however, you can take control of your attention and your workday. 
  • Discipline: there will always be times when disruption is unavoidable. Mitigate distractions by looking at your essential tasks and tackling them individually, in order of importance. This will allow you to handle any challenge or crisis efficiently, avoiding fatigue and overwhelm. It’s also helpful to recognize that not all distractions are external. According to Microsoft, the average attention span is now just 8 seconds, which would mean that goldfish now have the drop on us. While the stats behind this figure are murky, the study highlights that people focus and refocus on a given task. Disciplining yourself to avoid distractions such as email notifications and social media (turn them off) will improve productivity.
  • Concentration: Improving your innate ability to concentrate will help you get things done. Ways to improve your concentration include getting a good night’s sleep, prepping tasks before you begin, and having all relevant material and research at hand. A comfortable workspace and adequate lighting will help avoid discomfort, distraction, and fatigue.

Task switching is unavoidable at times, but you can manage it. One of the best ways to minimize the adverse effects of internal and external distractions is to plan for them. Indeed, you should count on them.

You may want Jedi-like focus for eight hours straight, but it’s much more likely that a myriad of side tasks erode your concentration. By managing task switching, you can get more done and decrease undue stress. By being aware of daily distractions, you can minimize them. 

Don’t fall into the trap of trying to do too many things at once. If you’re a proud “multitasker,” try focusing on one task at a time instead and watch your productivity soar.

No matter what job you’re in, we want you to be productive and happy. If you’re not and you’re finding that it’s much easier to get distracted, then maybe it’s time to consider something else that will be more interesting and personally fulfilling. Contact me today to find out more about the Concero recruiting process and how that can make your life better. 

Kendra Corley

Kendra Corley

Professional Recruiter

Connect with Kendra on LinkedIn.