Multitasking is a myth. Sure, we think we’re great at juggling emails, meetings, text messages, and writing tasks; but when we say we’re multi-tasking, we’re actually mono-tasking in serial. Don’t worry—it’s not a deficiency to hide on your résumé. Our brains are wired this way, according to Dr. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and author of Brain Rules.[1] Every time we switch tasks, our brains have to switch gears temporarily, and then switch back when we resume the original task. Those interruptions take a toll. According to Medina, it takes up to 50 percent longer to complete a task when it’s interrupted.[2] Even worse, we’re about three times more likely to make mistakes when we’re constantly switching tasks.[3]

How to Mono-task in a Multitask World

Although multitasking has become the accepted norm, it isn’t the only way to get through a busy work day. There are several steps you can take to improve your ability to focus, but how you approach the problem depends on your role at work. For example, if you’re a manager, a good part of your day is probably spent putting out fires, helping direct reports, and attending meetings. That’s okay, it’s your job. It just means that you’ll need to carve out times—perhaps early or late in the day—for doing work that requires focus, like reports, research, and responding to emails. Use the tips below to help block out those focus periods. On the other hand, if you are a content worker—someone who writes, does graphic design, or programs code, for example—you can take a different approach that allows you to “chunk” activities throughout the work day.

Figure 1: When you multitask, you are constantly interrupting one task to perform another—because of those interruptions, you are about three times more likely to make a mistake.3

Figure 1: When you multitask, you are constantly interrupting one task to perform another—because of those interruptions, you are about three times more likely to make a mistake.[3]

10 Ways to Stay Focused and Get More Done at Work

Here are some specific ways to “chunk” your activities to increase your efficiency and get more work done:

  1. Turn off email notifications. Set a schedule for yourself to check email manually at set intervals, no more than once every half hour. If you’re doing heads-down work, limit email checks even further to only a few times per day.
  2. Eliminate social media. Put away the smartphone and close all your browser windows for Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and any other social-media sites. Make work time about work, not your personal life.
  3. Pause messaging. If you use instant messaging at work, set your status to “busy” during heads-down work periods. Add a status message to let your coworkers know that you are busy until a specified time.
  4. Guard your time. Mark yourself busy for 2- to 4-hour ranges on your daily calendar to avoid being scheduled for meetings during your primary productive periods. And to make the most of those ranges, follow number 5:
  5. Work when you’re at your best. Identify the most productive hours of your day and try to use those times for your most difficult tasks. Those same tasks will take much longer to complete when you’re tired or at a mental low point in the day. Which brings us to number 6:
  6. Put aside low-priority tasks. Group and save less-demanding tasks for lower-productivity times, like mid-to-late afternoon. Do the tough work when you’re focused and the easy work when you’re beat.
  7. Chunk your work periods. During those heads-down work periods, use a timer to stay on task, and then take short breaks between bursts of focused work. There’s even a technique you can use to track your work times and breaks.
  8. Use a stand-up desk, if possible, and take breaks to move your body. Standing while working can help increase mental clarity and focus,[4] and it provides a variety of long-term health benefits.[5]
  9. Block out noise. Don’t let outside distractions keep you from focusing. If you work in an open office with lots of background activity, consider using noise-cancelling headphones to create a personal noise-free zone.
  10. Practice mindfulness. Scientists have shown that mindful meditation techniques are associated with changes in brain areas that affect attention and learning.[6] Consider implementing a routine for practicing mindful meditation before or during your workday as a way to calm your mind and gradually improve focus.

Give these tips a try. Chances are you’ll get more done in less time and feel more in control of your work life.

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[1] Medina, John. “Brain Rules.” www.brainrules.net.

[2] Rubinstein JS, Meyer, DE, and Evans JE. “Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 27.4 (2001): 763–797.

[3] Rogers RD and Monsell, S. “Depth of Processing and the Retention of Words in Episodic Memory.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 124.2 (1995): 207–231. Note that these trials involved uninterrupted (single-focus) tasks and interrupted (multiple-focus) tasks. Data are shown for experiments involving number-based manipulations and letter-based manipulations.

[4] Mehta, Ranjana K.; Shortz, Ashley E.; Benden, Mark E. “Standing Up for Learning: A Pilot Investigation on the Neurocognitive Benefits of Stand-Biased School Desks.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 13.1 (2016): 59.

[5] Smithsonian.com. “Five Health Benefits of Standing Desks.” March 2014. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/five-health-benefits-standing-desks-180950259/.

[6] Baime, Michael. “This Is Your Brain on Mindfulness.” Shambhala Sun. July 2011. http://www.nmr.mgh.harvard.edu/~britta/SUN_July11_Baime.pdf.

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