The real cost of multitasking (5 ways to rebuild your focus at work)


Think about the things you are doing right now. Obviously, you are reading this article, but chances are, you are also doing several things at once. 

Perhaps you’re also listening to music, DMing a friend, checking your email in another tab, or thinking about where to spend your weekend.

If you often do several things at once, you are a “multitasker.” And you probably think that you are fairly good at this balancing act. But numerous studies have shown that you may not be as effective as you think you are.

In this article, we’ll shed some light on the real cost of context switching, aka multitasking, on your productivity at work. Also, we’ll give you 5 simple ways to help rebuild your focus.


What is multitasking?


We often think of multitasking as performing more than one thing simultaneously: Watching Netflix series while scrolling through Facebook feeds, or driving while talking on the phone.

Multitasking refers to a) doing multiple things at once (like driving and talking on the phone) and b) jumping to another task without finishing the other first (like responding to emails incrementally while working on a larger project). 

But what is it that makes multitasking such a productivity killer? 

Doing multiple tasks at the same time or switching from one task to another will give you the illusion that you are accomplishing multiple things at once. But what you are really doing is quickly shifting your attention and focus from one thing to the next and jeopardizing the quality of your overall work. 


3 types of multitasking


The most common example we see on the Internet when we search multitasking is texting while driving. While this kind of double-duty (read: risky) attention split deserves a major callout and should be heavily frowned upon, this is just one of the many ways we try to force our brains in multiple directions simultaneously. 

There are three types of multitasking:

  1. Doing two tasks concurrently. This includes talking on the phone while driving or chatting with friends on Discord during a webinar.
  2. Switching from one task to another without finishing the first one. We’ve all experienced being right in the middle of focused work, and then our email notification pops up and demands our immediate attention.
  3. Accomplishing two or more tasks in rapid succession. It may not seem like multitasking at all, but our brains need time to change gears to work efficiently.

For the record, none of these three is necessarily worse than the others — they can all reduce our efficiency and can cause mental fatigue. 

Watch out for all these types of multitasking so you can regain control of your “work brain.”


What is context switching?


The short answer is: The time it takes to switch between two or more complex activities.

Context switching happens when you’re distracted by someone or something else in the middle of an important task, or when you interrupt your own focused work to prioritize another task (task switching). 

This situation, for instance:

You’re on a Zoom call with your team. But as soon as the conversation shifts away from something you’re responsible for, you check your inbox or jump back into the document you were working on — all while trying to keep one ear on the discussion.

Or what about this:

You’re working on a challenging project that requires your utmost focus. But you know your client usually asks for an update at this time so you constantly check your Slack to make sure you don’t miss it.

In reality, it’s hardly possible for most of us to achieve deep focus while continually switching back and forth from one task to another. If you are aiming to accomplish a difficult task, you need to reach a state of flow where you give your complete attention to that single activity. 

This is why context switching impedes you from being truly efficient. It can lower your overall work quality by stopping you from reaching your optimal state of focus.  


What is the real cost of context switching?


The more tasks you tackle at once, the more context-switching productivity loss can become an issue.

Studies show that it can take more than 25 minutes to resume a task after being interrupted. This is because distractions actively break down your concentration.

While the direct cost of context switching — task switching, or multitasking in general — might seem negligible, its lasting effect on your focus can be overwhelming.

It will :

  • Lead to anxiety: Research shows that multitasking can drain your mind’s energy reserves, causing you to lose focus and become more prone to anxiety.
  • Inhibit your creative thinking: Once you become more anxious by trying to juggle several things at once, your ability to think “outside the box” and be creative will likewise decline.
  • Stop you from working “in the zone”: When you enter the state of flow, your mind becomes so focused on a task that your productivity skyrockets. But when you’re constantly interrupted by other tasks, your brain will not be able to enter its flow state.
  • Cause more mistakes: Multitasking can exhaust your brain as if you had a restless night’s sleep; thus making you more prone to mistakes even with simple tasks.


5 simple ways to minimize context switching and rebuild your focus


Reducing the amount of context switching in your day requires deliberate planning on how you approach your daily work. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but these 5 quick tips have been tried and tested to help rebuild focus and improve work efficiency:


1. Follow the one task approach

Choose a single task to work on and dedicate all of your attention to it. Make sure that this is the only thing you plan to accomplish in a particular time frame.

It’s also beneficial to make a to-do list that includes every single task that you have for the day. This enables you to organize and prioritize the work to focus on at any given hour. 

And while the modern workplace is making it harder to focus on one thing at a time, you can rebuild your focus muscle with these two simple habits:

  • Remove as many distractions as possible.  When it’s time for your “focus work,” put your phone in another room, close your chatbox, and block distracting websites or apps if you need to. 
  • Start small. After years of context switching, your focus muscle is probably pretty wimpy. This is why you need to start small. Set aside a short block of time — even just 5 minutes — to focus deeply. And then build from there.


2. Time block your schedule to create clearer “focus boundaries”

Time blocking is a systematic approach to managing schedules where you break your day up into “blocks” of time. 

In each block, you set a specific task to be done. This way, instead of trying to cram work into the eleventh hour or in between meetings and emails, you know exactly what needs to be done at any given time. 

Time blocking isn’t just about scheduling your most time-sensitive work; it’s about scheduling everything —from phone calls to coffee breaks — so you can focus on one thing at a time while still giving you time to stay up to date.  


3. Add in routines and rituals that remove “attention residue”

Even if you finish a task during a dedicated “chunk” of time, when it’s time to move to other tasks you’ll still be thinking about the previous one. This is what researchers refer to as “attention residue.” 

Luckily, there are a few ways to reduce, if not get rid of,  the attention residue that happens when you context switch. 

One piece of advice is: Build routines and rituals that signal to your mind when it’s time to switch gears. 

This could mean grabbing a cup of coffee, closing your laptop, stretching, or walking around the office.


4. Use regular breaks to recharge

While deep focus is a vital tool in your fight against context switching, spending too long in a focused state can actually boomerang. 

You likely can’t stay in a high-energy, high-focus state all day long, but you can help sustain your energy reserves throughout the day by taking short breaks to recharge. 

Aside from your normal lunch and coffee breaks, you can also make use of micro-breaks to get a quick hit of rest between focus sessions. 

During these short, voluntary breaks, you can do breathing exercises to combat stress, stretch, or watch a funny video to help you relax.


5. Make sure to enjoy your non-work hours

If you’re unable to disconnect at the end of the workday, you won’t be able to give your mind the rest it needs to recuperate from the stresses of the day and be able to focus deeply the day after.

So leave work at work. Spend time with your family or friends. Take a relaxing rest. 


Wrapping it up…


The modern workplace is getting even busier, and there’s no stopping it. 

But the more you let yourself fall into the illusion of “accomplishing more with multitasking,” the harder it will be for you to hit your goals and feel good about the work you do. 

It’s time to tell it how it is — multitasking is a myth.

The only way to do more in less time is to focus on one thing at a time.

Have a productive, more focused (work)life!


Time is your ultimate currency. Make more of it.

Book a one hour free consult on how you can improve on your time.

Other Recent Posts

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This