Why should organisations bring back the mindset of single-tasking?

More than often, multitasking is glorified as an art. As the modern workplace gets busier and more stressful, multitasking seems like a quick way to accomplish more in less time. However, it does much more damage than good to the individual and the entire organisation. Here is a little piece of our mind about the perils of multitasking. We present our case to bring back single-tasking in the workplace.

The Ginza district of Tokyo is usually abuzz with tourists and local people rushing to work. Tucked in these bustling streets is Morioka Shoten- a small bookstore selling just one book at a time.  


The founder Yoshiyuki Morioka noticed how so many people would show up for the launch of one book at book publishing events. So he brought this concept to his small city-centre store. He picks only one book, fills the store with its multiple copies, and sells them for an entire week. The shop is designed as a blank canvas and is redecorated and transformed every time a new book is displayed. To further enhance the experience, Morioka organises reading events where the author is invited for an open dialogue with readers. In a crowded world of literary works, visitors get some time to focus on the only book available, understand the author and connect with other people. The overall experience in the bookstore is simple, authentic and artistic.

Even though the idea may seem bizarre from the standard market perspective, the little book store has managed to stand out. The idea of focusing on one book allows the kind of storytelling that would have otherwise been lost. 

In a culture that celebrates the idea of multitasking, Morioka Shoten questions the need of having unlimited options inspiring us to slow down and enjoy one moment at a time. 

“Multitasking is the drive to be more than we are, to control more than we do, to extend our power and our effectiveness. Such practice yields a divided self, with full attention given to nothing.” -  Walter Brueggemann

Why multitasking is an easy but dangerous choice? 

The allure of multitasking goes beyond daily life and spreads across creative processes and workplace culture. Our collective attention span is gradually reducing, thanks to information overload. Every new distraction from our high-end devices amid switching the tasks adds to the rush of dopamine.  Focusing on one task for long periods is incredibly hard, and our brain constantly filters outside stimuli and inside thoughts. 

A team from the University of Sussex ran MRI scans on the brains of subjects who spent time switching between multiple devices at once. These scans showed that individuals who multitasked more often had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, the area which is responsible for empathy and emotional control. Adam Gazzaley of the University of California explains, “Multitasking feels fun, even if it is draining our cognitive reserves”.

Switching tasks offers a welcome distraction from more challenging tasks or briefly provides a sense of accomplishment. Unfortunately, current research indicates the opposite: the task switch costs a reduction in performance accuracy or speed that unequivocally damages productivity. Every switch comes with a cost, and psychologist Gerald Weinberg shares that each extra task or context eats up 20–80% of the overall productivity.

Here are few steps individuals and organisations can take to wean off multitasking:

Getting rid of distractions

When Bill Gates was in his 20s, he completely cut off TV and music from his life to pursue proficiency in one single subject, which eventually led to the inception of Microsoft. To this day, Gates specifically sets aside one week every year as “Think Week”. During this time, he isolates himself in a secluded cottage and spends this time researching and reading while eliminating every granular distraction. 

It is incredibly easy to get distracted by the work environment. Phone notifications buzzing while doing a task or having multiple browsers open on the desktop is enough to pull our attention away from work set before us. 

James Hamblin from The Atlantic practises single-tabbing every week on what he calls Tabless Tuesday. That day, he keeps only one tab open, and when he is done reading or extracting any information, he closes it immediately. Only then, he opens the next tab. This helps him prioritise tasks as important and not so important. 

Something as simple as putting the phone face down, closing or saving the tabs for later, turning off the notifications or cleaning any physical clutter around can be instrumental in keeping the mind from wandering off to pointless pursuits. 

Creating a detailed task list

Having a to-do list is not the most radical idea, but it evidently improves performance for any professional. A 2009 study conducted by Stafford University showed that constant distractions and multitasking impacted the individual’s ability to recall crucial steps involved in a complicated project. Information overload leads to the impairment of trivial and important information, which is why employees miss vital steps in a project or the details of tasks allotted to them.

An excellent example in this context is Dr Gawande, a top surgeon in Boston. In his book, he mentions how even the most experienced and talented doctors make mistakes when doing something complex involving multiple steps and immense concentration. During his research, Gawande created a “Surgical safety checklist” and collected data on clinical processes and outcomes from 3,955 consecutively enrolled patients. The study deduced that on implementing this checklist, the rate of death declined from 1.5% to 0.8% and the in-patient complications reduced from 11% to 7%. Due to Gawande’s work, several hospitals prescribed the checklist to their most talented doctors for higher success and lower infection rates in operations.

Therefore, creating a detailed task list is a practical way to finish all tasks with fewer chances of errors. 

Batching similar tasks

Batching is to group similar tasks. When we group tasks of a similar mental model, we enter a flow state and go through them faster. Multiple studies suggest that people need at least fifteen minutes to reset and fully concentrate on one task after switching to it. This is why when tasks that require similar resources, energy and attention are put together, it is easier to create a more concentrated workflow, reduce procrastination and pay more attention to detail.

Award-winning author and the highest-rated professor at The Wharton School Adam Grant has been studying productivity for two decades. One idea, in particular, seems central to his method; it is the batching of both hard and unimportant intellectual work into one uninterrupted stretch. He performs task batching at multiple levels. He stacks all his classes in the fall semester so he can teach with the utmost dedication. This gives him ample time to research in the spring and summer. The fact is Grant does not work more hours than any average professor at an elite institution. He just maximises the intensity of his work, and that maximises the results he produces in those hours spent working.

A survey conducted by Adobe found that people in the workplace spend around 3.1 hours per day checking and sending emails; this amounts to 15.5 hours per week and a shocking 20 weeks in a year. This shows that batching even small tasks such as replying to emails, checking special media, making calls, brainstorming, and research may contribute to saving a significant amount of time in the bigger picture that could be utilised for something more significant.

Creating healthy workspace boundaries

Open office plans were once the rage as they created moments of serendipitous collaboration. However, despite this advantage, the increased noise and interruptions make it more difficult for teams to get work done. Companies that encourage workplace collaboration must focus on steering productive interactions.

There is a built-in expectation that employees must always be available for impromptu meetings and discussions, a practice that amplifies distraction. Individuals should be allowed to say that they do not want to be disturbed at certain times, or they should be able to pick quiet hours depending on their peak performance time for uninterrupted work.

Many brands and companies are adopting policies to offer a more engaging work time to their employees. Facebook, Asana and Highfive are a few of the many companies with a “no meetings on Wednesday'' policy. Basecamp is one such brand that tries to cut down many meetings by clubbing various agendas in one session. The marketing team at Justworks blocks off every Friday to focus on the larger tasks at hand. They are free to work from the office, home or coffee shops. Moveline is an online moving company with a “Maker’s Day” on Tuesdays when the product team spends the day solving more significant problems and is not available for meetings.

Identifying peak performance time

A man named Csikszentmihalyi embarked upon one of the largest psychological surveys in 1970. He travelled around the world to interview people about the times in their day when they felt they performed the best. He started with ace chess players, surgeons, athletes, dancers, etc. and moved on to Italian farmers, Navaho sheepherders, Chicago assembly line workers, elderly Korean women, Japanese teenage motorcycle gang members etc. Everyone he spoke to said they performed their best when they were in a state of what he named "flow”, which was different for everyone based on their age, lifestyle, community, occupation, social life and many other intrinsic factors.

As much as individuals focus on what they are going to do or how they will do it, they must also think about when they should do it. Every person has a unique peak performance time when people are most effective and feel energised. One must seize this time to work on high priority tasks that require more attention. When one starts to feel the lag and the energy levels drop, one may switch to other casual tasks that do not require much effort.

Kathryn Minshew, the founder and CEO of The Muse and the author of ”The new rules for work”, believes in managing the energy, not just the time. She optimises her workday by doing her most concentration-intensive tasks during her peak hours when her energy levels are highest, which is later in the evening when things quiet down. She avoids meeting during her peak hours and instead indulges in analytical work and planning. Like many other famous business people, Disney’s CEO Robert Iger is an early riser. He wakes up before dawn seven days a week, no matter which part of the world he is in, because he feels the most productive in these hours without too much interruption.

It takes some self-reflection to determine when one feels most productive instead of when one is barely dragging oneself. Simple productivity tracking apps may be helpful for such self-assessment.

Final Thoughts

Burning up all of a company's resources is not a good strategy for long-term success, which stands true for our mental resources as well. The modern workplace is only getting busier and more stressful, and even though task switching seems like a quick way to accomplish more, it is far from the truth.

Firstly, one must acknowledge the pleasure and validation associated with multitasking and consider the measurable negative cost to the long-term effectiveness. Secondly, leaders must redesign working norms for themselves and enable others to filter the digital overload and focus on the present time to perform at their best. Multitasking is not a skill to boast about or add to the resume. It is a recipe to be the Jack of all trades and master of none.

About the Author
Priyanka Dass
Priyanka began her career as a creative content writer. With over eight years of content marketing experience, she works on our content strategy.
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