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The Dangerous Allure of Multitasking

With the abundance of such obvious, day-to-day examples showing us the inefficiency of multitasking, why is multitasking so acceptable—and even encouraged? I think it boils down to three main reasons:

  • Productivity misperceptions
  • Fear of not getting something done
  • Fear of missing something

When I ask people why they try to multitask, one common response is that they actually think they’re being more efficient. And why wouldn’t they think so? There’s no downtime when you’re juggling multiple activities at once—you’re constantly switching from one thing to another, trying to keep all the balls in the air. At the root is a confusion between busyness and productivity.

Another concern is that if we don’t work on multiple tasks simultaneously, something might not get done. If you have three tasks, and you start working on only the first task, other people might have concerns that the second and third tasks may never get done, since no work is currently being done on them.

If you believe anything I’ve written up to this point, hopefully you’ll understand now that working on one task at a time—and completing it before you move to the next item—is more efficient than task switching. By working on only one task at a time, you actually increase the likelihood of completing all three tasks—and you’ll very likely be done prior to whenever you would have completed the tasks by working on all of them in parallel.

Finally, given the volume of information coming at us today, people worry that they may miss “something important” if their devices aren’t constantly interrupting and distracting them. My take is that if it’s important now, it’ll still be important in two hours. Otherwise, you can safely ignore it for now, instead working on those tasks that require intense focus and deep engagement.

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