Here’s What Happened When I Quit Multitasking for a Week to Improve My Productivity

Photo: Stocksy/Guille Faingold
Like many (if not most) people these days, I am a practiced multitasker—it's simply my strategy for how to be productive at an optimum level. While working, I have multiple browser tabs open at once, so I can toggle between items on my to-do list. And I take my laptop to meetings, so I can listen, participate, and work, all at the same time. I even multitask when I'm relaxing, watching Netflix while snacking and scrolling Instagram.

This is how we all live, right? Otherwise, how would everything—anything, even—get done? I've heard rumblings before that multitasking isn't the most efficient answer to how to be productive, but that's always left me wondering, if not multitasking, then…what?

In her forthcoming book Do Nothing (out March 10, 2020), Celeste Headlee acknowledges the societal pressure to multitask, but points to studies suggesting that not only is it ineffective, it's actually impossible to do successfully. "As our obsession with hyperproductivity has increased, so has our belief that we are able to multitask and that it helps us get more done in less time," she writes. "The truth is wholly the opposite in almost every circumstance, if neuroscience is to be believed. In study after study, we've found that we are slower at completing tasks when we switch from one activity to another than we are when we simply repeat the same activity."

"We are slower at completing tasks when we switch from one activity to another than we are when we simply repeat the same activity." —Celeste Headlee, Do Nothing author

That's largely because "switching" isn't the same as doing multiple things at once, as the term "multitasking" implies, says psychologist and cognitive behavior expert Art Markman, PhD. Meaning, we're not actually ever multitasking at all. "If you take the time to respond to a text during a meeting, you aren't really listening to what's happening in the moments when you're focused on writing a text; you'll miss whatever is said," he says. The exception to this, Dr. Markman says, are tasks that don't require much brain power. This is why someone can talk on the phone and wash dishes at the same time. But anything that involves careful thought, many scientists believe, can't be done simultaneously with something else also requiring thought.

Plus, these constant microshifts, Headlee writes, tire the brain, which can lead to more mental exhaustion. And, I'll admit, I do tend to feel mentally exhausted at the end of multitasking-heavy workdays. So I decided to quit multitasking for a week. Keep reading to find out whether doing so allowed me to finish my to-do list in record time, while leaving me feeling less mentally drained.

How to quit multitasking

In order to give this experiment a real shot, I'd need Dr. Markman's advice—especially regarding my urge to reply to emails as soon as they land in my inbox. His first rule? Put the phone out of sight, so I'm not constantly disrupted by texts. As for email, he advises closing my email tab completely (the horror!) and only checking it once an hour. The rest of the hour, I'm meant to focus on the tasks on my to-do list. He also suggests replying to the bulk of emails at the end of the day, which is when the brain is most exhausted. Emails often don't require as much thought as most other work tasks, so that way, I can use my mental energy where it's needed more.

Regarding my tendency to multitask my downtime, Dr. Markman suggests I might enjoy each relaxing activity more if I focus on one at a time. But, he acknowledges that's no easy feat. "It's very challenging to live without being glued to your phone," he says of the addicting nature of many apps. "It gets easier the more you learn to live without checking your phone every five minutes." Here's to hoping he's right....

How to be productive if you quit multitasking, like I did

I start day one of my experiment answering emails and then closing the tab completely, which I have never done before. (But because I work remotely, I keep Slack on so I can communicate with my colleagues and manager.) Then, I get to work—writing and researching and conducting interviews—all with my email closed.

Throughout the day, I continue to live by the "once an hour" email rule, and for the rest of the time, I focus on completing a single task at once. I also keep my phone in my purse, and only pull it out once an hour to check for new texts. While I finish work at about the same time I generally do, on this day, I realize that I enjoyed the tasks I was doing throughout the day more than usual. And I suspect that's because I could (nearly) completely immerse myself in each task without worrying about other to-dos I was trying to complete simultaneously.

While I finish work at about the same time I generally do, I realize that I enjoyed the tasks I was doing throughout the day more than usual.

Do I fell less "mentally exhausted"? Not really, but I definitely close my laptop feeling content and ready to relax. I put an episode of The Crown on and watch it with my phone in another room. I expect to get bored since it had been a long time since I watched anything without my hand molded into a texting claw. Gladly, I'm wrong.

The second day of relearning how to be productive is similar to the first. I'm really liking not having my email open all the time, and I'm learning that getting answers and replies at a slower pace doesn't hurt my productivity, either. I'm less disciplined regarding texting, though: If I hear my phone beep (I stubbornly ignored Dr. Markman's suggestion to put it on silent), I grab it right away.

A bit later in the week, everything is still going smoothly—until I jump on the phone for an interview. My email tab is closed and I have an away message on Slack, but even still, mid-call, my editor starts messaging me about a few stories she wants me to write on a short deadline. Instantly, I feel distracted and stressed, pull out my calendar and try to figure out how I could get it all done.

It's while I'm typing a response to my editor when I realize Dr. Markman is totally right: While looking at my schedule and Slacking, I completely miss what my source is telling me on the phone. As a result, I have to cobble together a response that both leads her to repeat what she just said and make it seem as though I wasn't tuning her out. Fortunately, I was recording the call, but the experience did teach me a lesson: I really am much better at my job when I focus on one task at a time.

What I learned by quitting multitasking

Unlike what I expected would happen, there wasn't one single day all week when I finished my work with time to spare. I also didn't magically transform into a more prolific writer, although I do think focusing on one task at a time made me better at other tasks, like sending more thoughtful and less frazzled emails, and, of course, being able to focus on what an interviewee is saying.

I also learned that it's only possible to minimize multitasking to an extent. For my job, I'm not able to completely cut all lines of communication to focus on what I'm personally working on. And other people may be have roles where their boss expects immediate replies to emails. No matter a person's situation, though, I do believe there are ways all of us can commit to doing less at once.

Though I didn't necessarily get faster or better during my experiment, I did come to enjoy what I was doing more and felt less as though my to-do list was something to simply rush through and complete. This benefit carried over into my relaxing habits, too. As long as what I put on TV was actually interesting to me, it was a lot more enjoyable to watch it fully than half-watch, half-scroll.

So while minimizing multitasking may not be a huge time-saver (for me, at least), it could be the secret to enjoying what you're already doing anyway even more. Since completing the experiment, I've kept up the habit of closing out of my email completely and only checking it once an hour. And maybe one day, I'll even learn to live with my phone on silent.

Here's how to be productive, according to experts at Harvard Business School. Plus, these eight apps that could help with productivity.

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