Undoing the Multitasking Mindset to Improve Performance

Spoiler alert: Despite what you may believe about your abilities, only 2 to 3 percent of the population can actually multitask. And Scott Blades, Assistant Director of Training and Organizational Development at University of Florida Human Resources, has a mission to provide insight to help people understand there is a better way to work.

“We’re at a place in human history where I don’t think we’ve ever been more distracted… And yet we’re expected to do more and more with fewer and fewer resources,” says Scott. “So I thought, what are some key principles that I can teach people – based on the science, based on the research – where we can get a better handle on the demands on our time and actually elevate our performance in the process?”

While it’s often one of the top questions asked by potential employers, multitasking – in reality, switch tasking, or switching back-and-forth rapidly amongst many cognitive activities at the same time – is detrimental on a physical level, depleting the oxygenated glucose levels our brains need to do their best work. Rooted in both his and his family’s background in education, Scott’s personal passion is to help others improve their performance by understanding how the mind actually works and retraining them to work with, not against, biology.

Following are Scott’s top three tips to begin the process of undoing the multitasking mindset:

Set clear priorities: Don’t fall prey to thinking everything is important. Come up with your top three to five priorities, then plan your time accordingly to accomplish those projects. At the end of the day you may end up working on more than those top tasks because of interruptions, but knowing what to go back to because you’ve prioritized things makes focusing much easier.

Work in “chunks”: Zig-zagging between tasks doesn’t make you a superstar – it actually makes you a much less effective employee, with the research showing that folks can make up to 40 percent more errors. Scott teaches a technique called “chunking,” which means spending at least 20 minutes – ideally 30 minutes to an hour – on just one activity, then switching to something else. Chunking helps you move more quickly and effectively through your task list.

“The way I describe it is this: If you’re doing your laundry, you would never fold a sock and then walk away and do something else, and then come back five minutes later and fold a shirt,” says Scott. “The better way to fold your laundry is to just sit down and get it done.”

Strategically minimize distractions: Did you know you can turn off email notifications? Instead of eyeing the next pop-up and answering right away, set aside time to check your email throughout the day so you can stay laser-focused on the priorities you’ve set for yourself.

“I turned off my desktop alerts 15 years ago and have never looked back,” says Scott. “You can be a thriving, high-performing professional without them.”

By Catherine A. Seemann

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