If you’re a hardworking professional, the holy grail of productivity is arguably your ability to multitask. You answer emails while eating lunch; write a presentation while fielding questions on Slack from your boss; conduct research while on a call. Multi-tasking is not merely a “skill,” it’s a highly coveted one: Requested on job descriptions, lauded on resumes, and enforced through cultural norms.
Since multi-tasking is associated with success, it makes us feel accomplished. But recent research and literature suggest the exact opposite: Multitasking isn’t merely a productivity killer, it has negative consequences for our health and happiness, too.
This past spring, the New York Times’ Verena von Pfetten delved into the topic at length, citing a slew of disheartening studies that debunk the merits of multitasking. One noted that multi-taskers are twice as likely to make errors on an assigned task; another confirmed that they struggle paying attention and are much more easily distracted than their mono-tasking counterparts. This, of course, has serious consequences for our professional lives. It not produces poor work; it makes the act of working less enjoyable. Think about it: Compare the times when you feel frantic and distracted versus those moments when you’re deeply immersed and “in the zone”: One is an agitated state while the other, a pleasurable one.
This mono-tasking-as-a-means-for-happiness observation can be applied to our personal, everyday lives. In his book Deep Work, mono-tasking evangelist and Georgetown University professor Cal Newport argues that multi-tasking encourages distraction to the point of dysfunction – particularly in the age of smartphones. Because we have a 24/7, always-on tool for multitasking in our hands, we constantly feel compelled to use it. Doing so can hurt our personal relationships (ever try having a serious conversation with someone while she mindlessly scrolls through her phone?) and deplete us to the point where we can’t focus on the things that truly matter to us. This negatively impacts our health – both mental and physical.
The challenge, then, is to embrace mono-tasking in a world that rewards the opposite.
Sounds hard, but it is possible: To begin, Newport recommends creating planned-ahead blocks in your day that you set aside for undistracted work. Treat these mono-tasking blocks like important one-on-one meetings: You are not available to do anything (emails, calls, texts) during them. You focus on a single task and then take a break. When it comes to personal free time, the obvious distraction perpetuator is your smartphone. Create tech-times where you put your phone out of sight for a solid chunk of time (minimum 30 minutes). Spend those blocks focusing on a single activity, like reading or having a conversation.
Do less and get more out of life? You heard it here first.