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Want to Focus More? Stop Multi-Tasking

Multi-taskingI confess: I am a multi-tasker. At any one time, I am working on 10 different projects, planning what to have for dinner, looking up which movies are playing and pondering what really happened to Eddie Wilson of Eddie and the Cruisers. You probably have similar habits and consider yourself a multi-tasker. We wear this label as a badge of honor. And who can blame us? Technology has made it so easy to multi-task.

Nevertheless, how many times do you intend to check the weather on your smartphone, only to be distracted by another app? Then you get a text message, which leads to an app notification and pretty soon you’re looking at cat photos on Facebook, forgetting all about the reason you picked up your smartphone to begin with (it was to check the weather, in case you forgot).

I have some bad news for us. Despite our best efforts to be multi-taskers, our brains are incapable of multi-tasking. Instead of multi-tasking, our brains switch between tasks, which the brain can't do effectively or efficiently. We already know that multi-tasking while performing certain other activities, like driving or walking, is dangerous. Moreover, trying to multi-task can actually increase the amount of time it takes to complete a task because you cannot focus sufficiently on it. Multi-tasking can also lead to increased mistakes and stress, and poor retention of information.

Today’s worker spends about three minutes on a task before switching to another, according to research by Professor Gloria Mark, Ph.D., at the University of California – Irvine. Additionally, her research shows it can take an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to resume an interrupted task. Imagine how much you could have accomplished on that one task, if, instead of switching, you stuck with it. However, switching tasks is not always our fault.

The most common cause of switching tasks is because someone or something else has interrupted you. The most common culprit of interruption (and stress)? Email. In another study by researchers at the University of California – Irvine, participants were cut off from email for five days. During those five days, participants’ stress levels decreased and their work productivity increased. They spent a longer amount of time, uninterrupted, on tasks and reported being in a better mood than when they had email.

Of course, abolishing email outright is not likely to happen, but you can take a break. Try shutting down your email client when you are working on a task. If you are unwilling to go that far, turn off the new email popup notifications. This will reduce the chance of distraction and keep you on task. Another tip is to stop trying to make email do everything. Email may be easy to use, but it is also easy to abuse. Think twice before you use email, when a face-to-face or phone conversation is possible. The social interaction might even improve your mood, according to Professor Mark.

Email is not the only task interruption culprit. Many other interruptions cause us to switch tasks. What other barriers prevent you from focusing on a task and how do you overcome them? Share your tips below.

, Communications Manager, American Institute of CPAs.

Multi-tasking image via Shutterstock

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