professional development, Startup Advice

The deadly sin of multitasking: 10 tips to improve your focus

Stuart Taylor /

Is lauding the ability to multitask one of the biggest delusions of the modern workforce?

Life is packed with deadlines, expectations and demands, so we cram our days with intense activity. Operating in today’s fast-paced society, multitasking is not only considered a coping strategy, but an essential skill to get through the day.

In reality, multitasking doesn’t allow you to successfully navigate challenging work environments. As we try to hopscotch our way through the day, we become less productive and put ourselves on the fast-track to burnout.

Read more: Seven steps to maximum productivity

While the brain is the most complex organ in the human body, despite its impressive processing speed it does have limitations on capacity. There is also a distinct difference in how much information the brain can process and the amount of awareness we have of this information. Studies show that our conscious minds have the processing power of approximately 110 bits per second, with some experts arguing that this is an even lower figure.

To put this into perspective, the brain already takes around 60 bits per second to process a conscious thought, which means if you are in conversation with someone, the brain has only 50 bits of processing power left to carry out other tasks. This control of attention, our ability to choose what we pay attention to, and what we ignore  may make you question how creatively engaged you are in a meeting if you’re switching between writing notes, contributing to the discussion, and sneaking in a quick work email.

From push notifications and instant messages, to inboxes bulging at the seams, today’s working life pulls our attention in many directions. Numerous neurological studies have demonstrated that people who complete single tasks one at a time are far more effective than multitaskers. Add to this those of us who engage in mindful meditation as a daily practice and you see a significant improvement in attention span, attention processing and executive functions — namely faster reaction times and a reduction in errors.

Attempting to operate within a regular barrage of information from multiple sources reduces our ability to switch effectively between tasks, organise thoughts, or retain information.

We are at our most productive when we reach a ‘sweet spot’ that balances a sense of calm with an intense focus, otherwise known as ‘flow’.

What is flow?

‘Flow’ — or ‘being in the zone’ — is when you reach a state of sustainable and effective performance. It’s where your skills are equally matched to the task at hand and the only barrier to performance is your level of concentration. Achieving the ‘flow’ ultimately allows you to be creative, confidently make decisions, and tackle challenges with ease.  

Test your flow

Try drawing a line through a picture of a maze, without touching the walls. To do this, you have to find the correct route through the maze, as well as concentrating on the physical skills to keep your pen from wavering. The more intricate the maze, the more you focus and engage in a state of flow.

Now do the same thing, but intersperse the maze task with checking your emails.

Completing the maze in ‘multitasking’ mode would not only have taken longer in total, but you would also find the task more difficult because your focus on the solution was interrupted.

While this test is simplistic, it does highlight how multitasking can disrupt your train of thought and reduce efficiency overall.

How do we achieve flow more regularly?

In two words: slow down. Elite athletes reach levels of ‘flow’ by factoring time in their training schedules for relaxation so they can fully rejuvenate. Biological rejuvenation increases productivity and creativity. In other words, we need rest, sleep, recreation and a regular practice of relaxation.

Ten tips to improve your focus

Daily non-negotiables:

  1. 1. Establish a structured sleep habit. Aim for 7 to 8 hours a night;
  2. 2. Prepare for the day with a healthy breakfast;
  3. 3. Take 10 to 30 minutes for relaxation or meditation practice; and
  4. 4. Make sure you get bright light, and preferably sunshine, most days.

Once you lay down these foundations, build good habits into your working day to achieve flow more regularly:

  1. 1. Divide your day into segments. Allocate time for certain work tasks, time to move your body, and time for mental breaks;
  2. 2. Select at least two tasks where you will dedicate to entering a state of deep flow; and
  3. 3. Every hour, take a minute to reset through focused breathing.

Finally, evaluate the bigger picture and enable yourself and your team to achieve flow together, more often by:

  1. 1. Shortening your working day. Aim for six hours of productivity where possible;
  2. 2. Start a conversation with your team on having structured time off; and
  3. 3. Take time every week to define what your goals are as a group.

So, next time you’re in a meeting and itching to check your emails, try to remember that navigating the complexities of today’s working world can be as simple as focusing on the task in front of you.

This article was written with Springfox chief knowledge officer Peta Sigley. 

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Stuart Taylor

Stuart Taylor is a speaker, facilitator, executive coach and the founder of Springfox.

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