Technology has enabled us to Work From Anywhere. Without email, messaging apps, communications tools, and collaboration platforms, it would be almost impossible for most employees to get their tasks done from somewhere other than the office. But many of these tools are double-edged swords. Sure, they let us communicate easily with one another anywhere, anytime… but sometimes, that’s a problem.
Let’s take an example. You sit down to work on a creative task that you know will take two or three hours to complete — a sales presentation, a proposal, a messaging document or something similar — and ten minutes in, you can feel yourself really getting into it. Ideas are flowing, distractions fade away and … PING! There’s an instant message from a colleague asking for a quick update on a separate project.
Moments later … PING! An email notification…
You go into email, find the information she needs, and open up your document again, but it takes you a few minutes to collect your thoughts and get back into the groove. You’re finally making headway again when … PING! A Slack message from your boss appears asking for your availability to reschedule a meeting. After consulting your calendar, you send times when you’re free, and try to get back into the flow, but PING! … PING! … PING!
Researchers call this “hyper-refocusing.” You probably know it better as “multitasking.” It’s a skill that lots of people in the business world like to say they have. “Sure, I can monitor email, write a proposal and keep a conversation going on in Slack all at the same time!”
The Myth of Multitasking
Research has consistently shown that human beings do not multitask well, especially when switching between the complex kinds of tasks people do in modern business: writing; coding; designing, etc. In fact, a study from the University of London found that these constant notifications split our attention so badly that they lower our I.Q. by 10 points, a larger effect than smoking marijuana. More importantly, many of us are monochronically wired and/or live in monochronic cultures.
Switching between tasks may not necessarily have an enormous cost individually — maybe even less than a second per switch. But when people switch repeatedly between tasks time and time again, these switching costs compound. Even though multitasking may appear efficient, according to the American Psychological Association, “even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone's productive time.”
That’s an enormous cost for constantly switching tasks under the illusion of getting more done! And it points to a more effective way to work: chunking. In this approach to time management, you focus on a single task for a dedicated amount of time, ideally until it’s finished. By breaking up your time into dedicated chunks, you’ll find that you get much more accomplished throughout the day. This even works for smaller, less cognitively demanding tasks, such as responding to emails or scheduling meetings. Simply batch these all together into a chunk of time dedicated to these kinds of miscellaneous tasks.
But how can we overcome the constant digital interruptions that slice our time into ineffective little slivers and get any substantial creative work done?