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Multitasking is actually a problem for productivity in engineering teams. Here's how to kick the habit.

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For years now, you'll have heard that multitasking is a great way to get more done in the same amount of time. You'll have tried it for yourself, attempting to get several things done at once so you can fit more into your day.

But if you feel like it's not working, you're not alone. That’s because multitasking, as a form of productivity, does not work. In fact, it can cost you time and effort.

Here's what you need to know about the hidden cost of multitasking, and how to avoid it.

What is multitasking?

If you've tried to multitask in the past, there are several ways that you may have attempted it. These might include:

  • Doing two tasks at once: This can include things like talking on a hands-free phone while you're driving, or answering emails when you're on a video call.
  • Going from one task to another before the first task is finished: This most often happens when an urgent task pops up when you're in the middle of another task, so you have to make the switch with the other task unfinished.
  • Performing multiple tasks in rapid succession: You may not think of this as multitasking, but if you're trying to cram as much as you can into the work day, then you’re still paying the price of task switching.

While these seem harmless at first glance, they can all affect your productivity and overall work. As such, you'll need to be on guard to ensure you're not engaging in these behaviors without realizing it.

The cost of context switching

When you're trying to multitask, you'll see that you're context switching all the time. This is when you're trying to engage yourself in two different complex activities, at the same time. The problem with context switching is that it stops you from giving your full attention to any one task.

When you're working on a complex activity, you need to achieve a state of flow. This can take up to 15 minutes of uninterrupted work. As such, you just won't be able to achieve that when you're always context switching.

This may not feel like a serious problem in your day to day. In fact, it can feel like you just can't work without context switching. With multiple apps, co-workers, and clients all needing your attention, what can you do?

Who is more prone to trying multitasking?

There are some people who are more likely to attempt multitasking than others. Are you the kind of person who will try to complete multiple tasks at once? You may be if you fit into any of the following personality types:

  • You're reward focused: You may have heard about the potential benefits of multitasking, and are attracted to the higher rewards it could give you.
  • You need more stimulus: If you're the kind of person who needs novelty to be interested in a task, multitasking could be attractive to you.
  • You struggle to focus: If you're the kind of person who gets distracted easily, you may find it harder to get out of multitasking.

How to avoid multitasking

Now you know that multitasking isn't as productive as it appears to be, you'll want to avoid it in your own work. Here are some ways to avoid falling into the multitasking trap:

  • Identify your most complex tasks: Sit down and work out which of your everyday tasks are the most complicated to carry out. Once you know which ones they are, you'll want to create some distraction-free time every day to do them. Put this in your calendar, and let others know that you can't be disturbed during this time.
  • Tackle similar tasks together: Group similar tasks together as much as you can. Take some time at the beginning of each day or week – whichever works for you – to categorize your tasks and plan when you’ll get to them. As you're working on them together, you’ll avoid the problem of context switching.
  • Go for the 'one task' approach: This means avoiding the concept of multitasking altogether. Instead of trying to multitask, tackle one task at a time. Dedicate all your attention to it, and work on it until it is done. Having a to do list can help with this, as it will allow you to prioritize your work.

To conclude, multitasking isn't the productivity hack that it's made out to be. If you avoid context switching in your work, you'll be able to be more productive, and do much better quality work overall.