Multi-tasking is a myth. Learn to focus on your goals.
Juggling multiple tasks at once may seem productive on the surface but it takes a toll on your brain. If you can learn to focus on your goals one at a time instead of multi-tasking you can drastically improve your productivity.
Back in the early days of my career, one of my first jobs was for a large advertising firm in downtown Chicago, IL. The Merchandise Mart where our office was located, was so large that the building had its own zip code! It was more than 2 city blocks long by 1 city block wide.
With 650+ people on a single floor you see a lot of things. The thing that bugged me the most during my time there was seeing people eat lunch at their desk. Let's think about that for a moment. Why are they eating lunch at their desk? The office has 3 separate kitchen areas for its employees so the issue is not having nowhere else to eat.
No, these individuals ate lunch at their desks because they believed they could be more productive if they did. "If I work on X over lunch, then I'll have time for Y later on". Trying to eat a sandwich and work at the same time is multi-tasking. But is it truly multi-tasking or constant switching? Think about it, you're actually performing hundreds of micro switches between 2 tasks: 1) Eating and 2) working.
Psychologists have concluded that anytime we set a new task for ourselves our brain pays a tax on that switch. This is known as "task-set switching" or "switching costs". Based on the complexity of the tasks switching costs may be relatively small. However when continuously switching back and forth between tasks the effects compound and equate to a large amounts of loss. Some psychologists believe up to a 40% loss in productivity, depending on the task(s).
An experiment conducted in 2001 by Joshua Rubinstein, PhD, Jeffrey Evans, PhD, and David Meyer, PhD, had young adults switched between different tasks, such as solving math problems or classifying geometric objects. They discovered that the more complex the task the more time they lost performing it.
Walking and talking I'm sure you can handle but what about driving and using your cell phone? Loosing even half a second switching tasks could be the difference between life and death. Use of a cell phone while driving caused an estimated 1.5 million car crashes in the U.S. in 2017.
Being more productive isn't about cramming more tasks together. The goal should be to apply focused attention to specific singular tasks. The best way to start implementing this tactic is to set times for every individual task. Maybe you spend 20 minutes reading then give yourself 20 minutes for your next task and so on.
Individuals who favor time-blocking over multi-tasking are not just more productive during the day but they also end up less stressed at work. Multi-tasking puts us in a reactive state. Check email, take bite of sandwich, put it down, respond to Slack message, look at something else, repeat. It's the feedback loop from hell. Staying in this reactive state hinders our ability to perform deep-work and solve meaningful problems. We can't think or solve important problems unless we are in a relaxed zen-like state. Did you ever notice why you get your best ideas in the shower or on the way to work but never when you're checking your email?
Multi-tasking may seem like a great strategy on the surface but its just plain wrong. Focusing on singular goals will help you become more productive and mitigate risk on mindless mistakes. Try some of these tactics next time you are at work. Block out times for certain tasks. Maybe try and check your email once in the morning and once in the afternoon. This process can be gradual you can build up to it. Over time you will eventually break free from the mindless multi-tasking drones that litter the workplace.
And for god sakes, please please please stop eating lunch at your desk!