In our current fast-paced digital world, there are countless things vying for our attention at the same time, requiring us to be effective at task management. Before you continue reading, take a second to look around. Are you doing anything other than reading this post? Do you have the TV on? Are you listening to music? Are you looking at your phone? If the answer is yes, what you’re doing is multitasking.
Multitasking occurs when you try to perform two tasks at the same time, when you abruptly switch from one task to another, and when you perform two or more tasks back to back.
Essentially, multitasking is the difference between on-task and off-task activity, and is highly dependent on distractions. Multitasking is especially relevant in the workplace, where there are so many different things competing for your attention.
Our team of PhDs have reviewed dozens of scientific articles on cognition and neuroscience to bring you the following post on task management. This post focuses on how to manage the demands on the workplace in order to reduce the amount of time you spend multitasking, and minimize the pitfalls that come with frequently switching from one task to another. You will be given ways to:
- Minimize self-directed task switching to reduce your need to multitask
- Reduce the negative effect of being interrupted by others while in the middle of a task
Multitasking is inevitable
By its very nature, switching between tasks is a disruption. For instance, maybe you’re working on an important report that’s due by lunch time. When your coworker comes over to chat, rather than focusing on the original task of writing the report, you’re now focused on the task of talking to your coworker.
Or maybe your cell phone pings, informing you you’ve just received a new text. Unfortunately, switching between tasks is often required many times in just one regular workday.
When people are disrupted and switch to a new task, they are slower and less accurate when completing the new task than they would have been if they were to continue with the initial task. This difference in performance is referred to as the switch cost. People experience switch costs even when they’re aware that they will be switching tasks.
Multitasking is detrimental
Despite the ongoing need to multitask, we aren’t very good at it. Not only are we not good at it, it also tends to have a negative impact on our productivity. At work, people get disrupted approximately every three minutes, most of which are self-directed.
In light of the frequency and pre-eminence of workplace interruptions and the inevitability of multitasking, all we can do is try to minimize how often we switch from one task to another or how we manage our response when doing so is unavoidable. By engaging in task management, we are reducing how often our attention is diverted from one task to another, and how often we’re switching between tasks, thereby improving the efficiency and quality of our work.
What happens when we switch between tasks?
Cognitive control, including task management, involves a number of neural processes. We have to (1) select the appropriate task, and (2) reduce the interfering influences of alternative tasks. Then when we switch between tasks we have to be able to engage and disengage. In order to do this, we rely on our working memory updating, mental inhibition, and set shifting.
When we have to, or choose to, abruptly switch between tasks, there is a period of overlap in which we are processing both tasks at the same time. This reduces our ability to perform either task as well as we could if we were only focused on one at a time.
Another reason distractions can be problematic is because they interrupt flow. When we’re really in the groove of a project or task, distractions can ruin our flow, reducing efficiency and potentially affecting the quality of our work. If you’re interested, here’s a playbook that helps you achieve workplace flow.
Are you your own worst enemy when it comes to task management?
As previously mentioned, sometimes we can be our own worst enemies when it comes to task switching and task management. There are all kinds of tempting stimuli around us. Because of this, we may have a hard time staying on task, even without any external interruptions, such as chatty coworkers.
Tip #1 – Putting your cell phone away will help you with better task management
Cell phones are one of the leading causes of task disruption. Although the idea of not being able to instantly know when you have a new text message or email may sound antiquated and awful, there are considerable benefits to detaching from your phone during the work day.
In fact, even if you’re not using your phone, its mere presence might be distracting enough to negatively affect attention and productivity. Every time you switch from a primary task to the task of checking your phone, you are engaging in task switching, thereby negatively affecting your performance when you switch back to the original task.
This suggestion also extends to social media and smart watches. Whenever possible, put your phone away and turn off any social media notifications on your computer so that you can stay on one task at a time. This will enable you to complete tasks more accurately and more efficiently.
Tip #2 – Planning strategic breaks helps with better task management
The Pomodoro technique of time management is becoming increasingly popular. The main premise behind it is to explicitly assign your time to specific tasks while also scheduling frequent short breaks.
- Decide what task you want to focus your attention on – write it down on a piece of paper
- Set a timer for 25 minutes
- Work on the task for 25 minutes
- When the timer goes off, stop what you’re doing and place a checkmark on the piece of paper marking which task you’re working on
- Take a 5 minute break
- Repeat Steps 1-4 four times then take a 15-30 minute break
By explicitly stating what task you’re going to work on, you’re less likely to switch between tasks, especially if you’re only going to be working on the task for 25 minutes.
By taking a break every 25 minutes, if a sudden urge to check social media threatens to interrupt your flow, you can more easily put off indulging in that urge until the timer goes off. Then, when you do take the time to check social media, you’ve only allotted so much time. This means you can get back to the task at hand more quickly than if your break was unstructured.
Additionally, by actually scheduling breaks into your workflow, rather than switching from one task to another, you can reach more insightful conclusions and avoid impasses. Also, when switching from one task to another, taking a scheduled break, even if it’s only five minutes, can help reset your frame of mind before you begin the new task.
Are other people getting in the way of your task management?
Despite our best efforts, sometimes we don’t have control over disruptions. So far we’ve outlined some tips for how to minimize self-directed task switching, but what about when you’re forced to switch from one task to another by someone else?
In general, people get interrupted by coworkers approximately 13 times per day. These interruptions last, on average, 15-20 minutes and contribute to fragmented work. Each interruption is an example of switching off task and completing an alternative task. By implementing the techniques outlined below, you can help minimize and eliminate how often this occurs, thereby limiting the need to multitask.
Technique #1 – Stay S.A.F.E.
Next time someone disrupts your workflow, try the “Stay S.A.F.E.” technique. This technique helps minimize the amount of time you are distracted from primary tasks.
There are five components of Staying S.A.F.E.
- Stay: When experiencing or anticipating a distraction, stay in your current physical location and stay engaged with the current task you’re working on. For instance, if someone is calling your name, stay where you are – don’t go over to them.
- S: State aloud what you’re in the middle of doing, and be as specific as possible. For example: “I’m in the process of drafting an email to a client”.
- A: If you’re being interrupted by another person, acknowledge that person, but make sure not to look away from the task you’re completing. For instance, if John comes up to your desk when you’re in the middle of something, either say something or gesture to acknowledge that you’re aware of his presence, but keep writing the email.
- F: Fixate on where you are in the task you’re completing. Make sure to do this for at least 1-2 seconds. When there’s a natural break in the task you can pause and direct your attention to the distraction. For instance, if drafting an email, pause after completing the sentence you’re working on and making note of where you’re leaving off.
- E: Estimate how long it will be until you can attend to the disruption. For instance, when you acknowledge John’s presence, let him know whether it will take you 30 seconds or 5 minutes to be able to direct your attention toward him.
By implementing the Stay S.A.F.E. technique, you can minimize the impact of external driven task switching, and make it easier to pick up where you left off when the distraction is gone.
Technique #2 – Create your own workplace “traffic light” to help with task management
This second technique uses a kind of workplace traffic light to communicate your availability (or multitasking capacity) to coworkers. The FlowLight uses a LED light bulb mounted on workers’ desks and an app installed on their computer. The app tracks availability based on current and historical computer interaction data. When tested, the FlowLight reduced distractions by 46%.
You can implement this task management technique with any system you want. For instance, one low-tech method is using sticky notes instead of a light bulb and app. However, by using sticky notes instead of an app, you have to set your own availability rather than relying on computer interaction data.
- Buy red or green sticky notes or stickers.
- Find a location in or near your workspace where you can place a sticky note so that others will be able to see it as they approach your workspace.
- Inform your colleagues what these sticky notes or stickers mean so that they will know whether or not you are open to a disruption.
- Decide what your availability is. If you’re okay with being interrupted by colleagues, put out a green sticky note or sticker. If you’re not open to interruptions, put out a red sticky note.
- Throughout the day, as your availability changes, switch out the red and green sticky notes.
Recap of “Task management: Minimize the negative impact of abrupt task switching”
This post has outlined the prominence of task switching and multitasking in the modern world. Despite how well we might think we are able to complete multiple tasks at the same time or in rapid sequence, doing so has a negative impact on our work. Hopefully you’re now able to implement some techniques that minimize the costs of multitasking.
This post also outlined four key tips that will help you become better at task management so you can avoid task switching, whether it’s driven by you or your coworkers. To recap:
If you’re being pulled from one task to another by your own wandering mind.. or your cell phone:
- Put your phone away! Notifications can be a key hindrance to productivity, and are one of the most frequent distractions we experience. It’s impossible to get into a state of workplace flow when your phone is repeatedly pinging.
- Use the Pomodoro method of time chunking to help with task management. By scheduling your working time and break time, you are better able to stay on task or set a time limit to how long you’re taken away from the task you’re working on. This method can also make it easier to reset your mind when switching from one task to another.
If you’re being distracted by others, improve your task management by:
- Trying the Stay S.A.F.E. technique. This approach allows you to take more control of task switching by consciously thinking about where you’re pausing in your work. This makes it easier to resume working on the same task.
- Implementing a sort of workplace traffic light – develop a system that will enable you to communicate with coworkers when you are available to be interrupted and when you are not.