Did you know the human brain evolved to multitask?
Doing more than one thing at a time is natural. We’re always doing it, though most of us don’t notice or recognize it for what it is.
As a way to get work done, save time and increase productivity, multitasking was once touted as a sure path to success. In recent years, however, there’s been an anti-multitasking backlash. Many people have come to see it as piling distraction upon distraction and actually lessening overall productivity.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Learn to handle things one a time when that’s the best approach, sure. But learn to multitask when the time is right and you’ll find yourself sailing through your to-do lists at home and at work. Here are some tips:
- Take large tasks one at a time. Wait. What? That doesn’t sound like multitasking at all, does it? The simple truth is, some tasks demand your full attention. Do them first so they aren’t looming over your schedule while you’re trying to accomplish everything else. The idea is to keep your mind free from the stress of pending tasks by getting the big ones out of the way first. Even if you can’t complete the task in the time set aside for it, once you’ve started it you’ll be more likely to return to it. Then you can group less critical tasks together and get your multitasking groove on.
- Never do two major tasks at once. Effective multitasking means having one major task that requires focus and critical thinking at a time. The beauty of multitasking is in how you manage the smaller tasks that you’re doing simultaneously. If you take on two big things at the same time, they’ll compete for your mental resources, swamp your brain, and leave you as unproductive as ever.
- Ditch the extras. Procrastinating may not always be a bad strategy. If you’re facing a gazillion tasks, do yourself a favor and eliminate (or postpone) the ones that aren’t important. The first draft of your to-do list shouldn’t have anything that isn’t truly important. Assignments from your boss and imminent deadlines make the cut; something that can be bumped to another date shouldn’t be allowed to hamstring your plan for productivity today.
- Group similar tasks. Put related tasks together to reduce your workload. For instance, if your major task is to give a multimedia presentation at work and a related minor task is to create printed collateral for the people at the presentation, you should treat them as one project. Writing your presentation notes naturally leads to writing the text for the handouts, so those tasks can be completed at the same time.
- Resist distractions. When self-restraint fails you, find substitutions. If you’re tempted to hop on Facebook for the 10th time today, hop on an industry blog instead. You get the momentary diversion without entirely shifting your focus from your work. Don’t let your email be a distraction; check it at designated times throughout the day, not constantly. People expect a predictable response from you, not an immediate response.
- Keep your brain busy while you’re running errands. You know how people say their best ideas come to them while they’re in the shower? While you’re devoting time to things that have to be done, your brain can be put to work on other things. Some of your daily tasks will require your time but not much mental energy. We’re talking about driving to work, grocery shopping or walking the dog. Thanks to smartphones and earbuds, you can catch up on news, listen to a podcast or call a friend to say hello. Or while your body is on autopilot, this could be a great time for your brain to work through a complex problem. Just because you’re doing your grunt work doesn’t mean your creativity and problem-solving skills have to be put on hold.