How Multitasking is Killing You – And How to Stop It

Multitasking is something that most of us have accepted as part of modern life. However, studies have continually shown that working on several tasks at once only produces lower-quality results for all of the tasks in question, as well as raising stress level and destroying the ability to concentrate.

Here are three steps you can take today to phase multitasking out of your work life and start producing better quality work:

1. Eliminate Multitasking with Better Scheduling

If you find yourself multitasking simply because you’re going at your job with a “stream-of-consciousness” mindset, you probably need to be more focused about how you’re structuring your day. Get yourself a day planner and spend 15-30 minutes in the morning building your upcoming day. If you own an iPad, consider Evernote, or Notesuite, or even just the plain old calendar app.

You may be thinking, My day is far too unpredictable to plan. I don’t even know when I’ll eat lunch, much less where I’m going to find two hours to finish this proposal (or whatever). That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make a plan, just that you should make a different kind of plan. Try making a more flexible Productivity Log.

There are different types of Productivity Logs, and what works best for me is to use a ruled journal and make vertical columns with a ruler. I make two wide columns followed by three smaller ones. In the first wide column, I write the name of the activity I need to get accomplished. In the second, I keep a running total of what time I spend doing that activity during the day. The third column (smaller) is the goal I’ve set for how much time I want to spend on that particular activity. The fourth column is where I write my total at the end of the day for how much time I actually spent on that activity. Because planning systems are useless without assessment and accountability, I reserve the fifth column for giving myself a grade.

If your days are far too busy to be able to say “I’m going to spend 8:00am to 10:00am tracking down signatures for these TS reports,” then a Productivity Log just might be the way to go. I also find this helpful for those times when I’m working on one task, then suddenly have a great idea for a different aspect of my job. I stop my timer, log the time, do whatever I was thinking for the other task, log its time, then get back to my first task. It keeps my mind clear, and it may do the same for you.

2. Kill Those Multitasking Birdies

Whenever my 3-year-old hears one of my devices chime with a notification, she tells me that a birdie is calling for me. It’s cute, and she’s adorable. But the birdie is a big problem because it always seems to need something when I’m in the middle of something else. Then I just have to see what someone wrote as a comment on a blog, or which tweet someone favorited. That little window at the top of the iPad is a big problem – it’s a tease, and it knows just how to derail my focus.

So kill them. Kill as many distractions as you can as quickly and efficiently as possible. Disable notifications on your tablet or turn on “Do Not Disturb” mode. Close any tabs on your computer that you don’t need. Sure, it’s fun to see when a notification pops up on Facebook, but it changes your focus when you’re trying to work. It reminds you that there are so many other more fun things you could be doing instead of whatever you’re working on, and the next thing you know, you’re daydreaming about Benjamin Franklin riding an Allosaurus while fighting Napoleon (maybe that last part is just me, though).

Listen to non-vocal instrumental music. When I was a substitute teacher, students would always balk when I suggested this, convinced that they can’t work without their music. This is another huge misconception that we seem to have about ourselves. Here are a few studies that show the drop in productivity that comes when you listen to vocal music while you work.

I always stick to nonvocal stuff like classical music or even film scores when working, especially when I’m working from a busy, noisy environment like a coffee shop. As I write this, the film score for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back rings gently in my ears. However, it’s better than being distracted by the loud and gossipy group of high schoolers sitting nearby.

Killing the birdies will also allow you to give them the attention they deserve when it is time to kick back and relax. Compartmentalizing your time by treating even the distracting things with serious planning can help you to enjoy them more, and make them less of a distraction as well.

3. Prevent Multitasking With More Preparation

In the Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote “The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.” (tweet this!) He was right, and not only about battle. Whenever you’re undertaking a large project that makes your head spin just thinking about it, your mind may react out of fear, which is why you’ll be tempted to get off task with other nonessential work.

If you make an actionable plan for how you’re going to accomplish a large task, it will help you alleviate fear. It will also help your mind to focus on the smaller individual tasks of the project, rather than growing overwhelmed at the scope of the project itself. With many calculations will come victory.

If you’re using an iPad, I highly recommend a few apps to help you break down a large project into bite-size tasks. Evernote (again) is an obvious favorite for planning. I also recommend MagicalPad (see my review here) for a great way to “map” the individual steps necessary in a project.

You may even just try writing the project out backwards, starting with the end goal. In one of my favorite episodes of The Office, main character Michael Scott tried unsuccessfully to convince his failing company’s board of directors to make a 45-day plan to restore profitability with him. He started with “Day 45 – Company Saved,” then asked them what Day 44 would look like. They refused to participate, unfortunately, (in their defense, they needed to come up with this plan in 15 minutes), but the idea stuck with me and I used it on a few projects very successfully.

Spending more time preparing for the big projects helps your mind conquer its fears and insecurities. This will help you to eliminate multi-tasking because you’ll be less tempted to distract yourself with work that is not time-sensitive. Just remember that the key is to break the big project up into bite-size, measurable tasks.


I challenge you to follow these three steps for 30 days and not see an improvement in the quality of your work. Remember, Better Scheduling, Kill the Birdies, and More Preparation can help improve your life. Take the 30-day challenge, then send me an email at editor[at] and tell me how it went for you.

Have you learned any good tricks for focusing on the task at hand and eliminating multitasking? Send those my way too, and I’ll publish a follow-up piece full of your suggestions.

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