Being More Productive By Doing Less (At Once)

In my last post I discussed multitasking as something to avoid. I pulled one quote and one experiment to show that multitasking was bad and then moved on with my point.

As a lawyer, I feel the need to double back and support my argument. While many of you agreed, I recognize that I have not actually done the work to convince you that multitasking is, in fact, bad for productivity.

Everyone does it these days. There is so much going on and so many different sources of media that you can’t always help it.

Plus, aren’t you getting more done by doing multiple things at once? Doesn’t squeezing more things into the same time slot mean that you can accomplish more?

Well, no. And here’s why:

What Is Multitasking?

When you are multitasking, you are not really doing two things at once. Instead, you are engaged in a process called cognitive switching, in which your brain bounces back and forth between the different tasks very quickly.

So while you feel like you are talking on the phone while writing an email, you are actually paying attention to the call and ignoring your email and then ignoring your conversation while you pay attention to your email and back and forth and back and forth.

And this is all fine, except that there is a penalty attached to this cognitive switching.

An American Psychological Association paper explains the costs involved with switching focus with this example:

“A student who has completed her math homework and is ready to begin her English homework must first decide that she is done with math and ready to begin English (goal shifting) and then turn off the rules of addition and multiplication and activate the rules for reading a story (rule activation).”

This switch happens so quickly that we don’t usually think about it. According to University of Michigan researchers, it takes only a few tenths of a second. This is quick enough that we don’t notice, but long enough to cause problems if we are constantly switching.

Multitasking Makes You Less Productive and More Error-Prone

An experiment out of Central Connecticut State University studied students who were reading while using Instant Messenger and compared them to students who were reading without distractions.

Obviously the students using IM took longer to read. The more interesting part is that they took longer to read the passage even if you only count the time that they were actually reading! 25 percent longer, in fact. The cognitive switching penalty, that split second readjustment, ended up adding a huge amount of time.

In The Personal MBA, Josh Kaufman discusses the cognitive switching penalty and the extra time it causes you to lose. “That’s why it’s possible to spend an entire day multitasking, get nothing done, and feel exhausted at the end – you’ve burned all of your energy context-switching instead of making progress.”

We’ve all felt that before at the end of a long day. That feeling that we were working all day, feel completely exhausted, but can’t really say what we got done.

And if we think about it, we’ve probably noticed the cognitive switching penalty itself. Think about a time when you’ve tried to write an email while talking on the phone. Or participated in an in-person conversation with someone while checking Twitter. You slow down. There’s more of a beat in between responses in your conversation. You get lost easily.

A lot of research has been done in this area around the issue of talking on the phone or texting while driving. Many states have banned texting while driving and forced drivers to switch to hands-free phone calls. But this misidentifies the problem.

The problem is not that people’s hands are off the wheel or their eyes are off the road (although those are obviously not great), but rather that people’s minds are switching back and forth between the road and the conversation.

Studies have confirmed this. When you are talking on the phone, even a hands-free phone, you are less likely to notice and react to hazards and you have a smaller field of peripheral vision.

Turns out, hands-free phone calls and texting while driving is actually not any safer than calling and texting the old fashioned way.

But I’m Different!

“Maybe most people can’t multitask,” you may be thinking, “But I can.”

This is not an uncommon response to seeing the evidence against multitasking. “I’ve seen all of the evidence, but I know my own experience, and multitasking has worked for me.”

As one neuroscientist said about this, “The brain is very good at deluding itself.” (Too harsh? Hey, I didn’t say it…)

The studies have looked into this as well. Experimenters wanted to find out whether the people who are most confident in their multitasking, who do it the most and are pretty much experts at it, are better at it than the rest of us.

And the counter-intuitive finding is that they are actually even worse at it.

The more you build the habit of multitasking, the worse you get at focusing and the higher your cognitive switching penalty climbs.

The better you think you are at multitasking, the more your multitasking is actually hurting your productivity.

How to Improve

Okay, so…that sucks. We think we’re being more and more productive and we’re actually getting less and less productive. Not only that, but we are retraining our minds to make productivity even harder.

So what do we do?


Well step one is to take a step back. See the big picture. Prioritize. What is the most important thing that needs to get done? Do that thing first.

In the book The One Thing, the authors recommend starting each day by asking “What is the one thing you can do today, such that by doing it everything else will be made easier or unnecessary?”

Does one thing seem too small for you? On a recent episode of the Smart Passive Income Podcast, Chris Bailey recommended starting your day by picking three things that, if you completed them, your day would feel like a success. Make sure those three things get done before you dive into the morass of minutia that tends to overwhelm our day.

Train Your Mind

We’ve trained our minds to multitask, so let’s do the work to bring them back to a more productive state.

One way to work on this is through meditation. Meditation can help you increase your focus, avoid multitasking, and decrease stress. If that’s not enough of a sales pitch, then I don’t know what would be (although you can read my prior article on meditation for even more benefits).

Cal Newport in his book Deep Work recommends training our minds by embracing boredom. He suggests scheduling Internet-free blocks into our day and sticking to them. If we are bored during an Internet-free block, we cannot pull out our phones and start playing around or checking Twitter. Instead, we need to wait through the end of the block and be alone with our thoughts.

In this way we slowly train our mind not to expect the instant gratification that comes with constant connectivity. This will allow us to build focus over time and be better able to complete important work and be more productive.

Adjust Your Environment

Retraining our minds is a long and hard process. We need something to do in the meantime.

Adjusting our environment is a much easier way to increase productivity and decrease multitasking than retraining our minds.

Try silencing your phone. If your phone buzzes or beeps any time you get an email or a Twitter mention, you will be pulled from your task and risk seduction by multitasking constantly. Remove that risk.

Similarly, if you can do your work without the Internet and/or without your email window open, give that a try. It is very easy to get off-track online and your email window provides a constant distraction similar to your phone.

One other environmental adjustment that I have found helpful is to keep a notepad by my desk. If something pops into my head, whether it is something I need to do or something that I need to think about, I can write it down. This gives my mind permission to let go of it for now without worrying that any balls will be dropped. It is a simple act, and I don’t have the research at this point to understand why it works, but it works very well.

Multitasking is a tough habit to break, so let’s gather our tools and tricks and get to work.

Do you have any tricks that I’ve missed? Share them with us in the comments!

16 thoughts on “Being More Productive By Doing Less (At Once)”

  1. It’s true. However, not everyone can get away from multitasking.

    Some jobs, especially customer-facing ones, pretty much require that you maximize your multitasking. And people who hold them often get caught in the middle of the competing requirements. Are you there to provide outstanding customer service (which is hard to measure but that your company usually emphasizes) or to complete the productivity metric (administrative work, stocking shelves, etc.) that you’ve been assigned as the “secondary task” but that your boss can measure?

    A lot of bosses pretty much demand multitasking ability, even when the job doesn’t necessarily demand it. So the fact that it’s less effective needs to be recognized by both employees and employers.
    Emily @ JohnJaneDoe recently posted…Tackling Too Much Stuff: Kicking Off Our 2017 Declutter ProjectMy Profile

    1. This is fair. We definitely need to get this information into the hands of employers and decision-makers. It’s hard to avoid doing something when your boss insists upon it.

      I think in the meantime employees need to do as much as they can to try to consciously move from one task to another, even if it is only working for a few minutes on one before switching. It still gives the appearance of multitasking to a boss while allowing us to be a bit more productive.

      Thanks for the comment, Emily!
      Matt recently posted…Being More Productive By Doing Less (At Once)My Profile

  2. I’m so glad you brought up the danger of multitasking with phones and driving. This is a topic that I’m very passionate about. It drives me crazy that more people don’t understand or know that it is the act of having the conversation while driving that is dangerous.

    When people still try to disagree I ask them to think of a time when there is a passenger in the car and they are trying to navigate unfamiliar territory and really need to keep an eye out for signs or directions…. can you really have another completely different conversation while doing that? No.

    Additionally, if you have a passenger in the car and they sense a situation that needs the driver’s attention, they are more likely to stop the conversation and let the driver concentrate, because it means more safety for them. The person on the other end of the phone has no idea what you’re driving conditions are.

    I have to say, given how incredibly dangerous driving while texting/talking is, why do so many of us think that we are so important that it is worth compromising the dangers of others? I’ve heard parents say, well, when the phone rings I always think it could be an emergency with my kid. Well, the only true emergency requires a call to 911. All others can wait 30 seconds while you pull over and answer safely. How they feel if they hurt (or worse) another child or parent? Think people! 🙂
    Primal Prosperity recently posted…You lucky bastard – you’re alive!My Profile

    1. Agreed. “Additionally, if you have a passenger in the car and they sense a situation that needs the driver’s attention, they are more likely to stop the conversation and let the driver concentrate, because it means more safety for them. The person on the other end of the phone has no idea what you’re driving conditions are.” This is one of the things that came through in the studies that I read. I hadn’t considered that aspect of talking in a car, but it is definitely on point. Plus, the passenger is an additional set of eyes while your focus is not 100%.

      Thanks for the comment!
      Matt recently posted…Being More Productive By Doing Less (At Once)My Profile

  3. “Deep Work” sounds right up my alley. Mr. Groovy and I attempt to be the masters of boredom! Thanks for the tip.

    I agree with Josh Kaufman about how exhausting multi-tasking can be. The ongoing shifting of attention can suck the life out of you. Although I think some people truly like to get distracted. They trick themselves into feeling productive.
    Mrs. Groovy recently posted…Are You Overtaxed? The 2016 EditionMy Profile

  4. Even when I’ve used hands-free when driving, I can’t usually remember actually driving to my destination. Which means my mind was not in the right place.

    I just read Essentialism, which sounds like it would complement “The One Thing” nicely (which is on my book list). I like the idea of picking the most important thing and getting it done. Lately, my issue is focus. Too many other things going on in life right now distract me, and then I’m completely unproductive.

    I (finally) started meditating a few weeks ago. The Headspace app is helpful. Interesting thing? My blood pressure at my doctor appt. last week was down significantly from the month prior.
    Amanda @ centsiblyrich recently posted…How I save a ton of money on clothesMy Profile

    1. Congrats on the meditation (and blood pressure!). I’ve been using Headspace for a little over a year now and I really like it. I actually find that the streak tracking thing in the app really pushes me to do it more often than I would on my own. Even if I don’t feel like doing it one morning, I also don’t feel like ending a 100-day (or whatever) streak and starting back at 1. And I’m always happy that I did it after.

      Thanks for the comment, Amanda!
      Matt recently posted…Being More Productive By Doing Less (At Once)My Profile

  5. I know at work that I stink at multi-tasking. Everyday before I leave work I write down tasks that I haven’t completed by the end of the day. In the morning when I arrive I re-read those tasks and then read through my emails adding things to my list. I then re-order determining importance until then start working my way through the list. That’s helped me stay on tasks as I know what’s considered important and what can wait. Before I did this, I was a mess.
    Mustard Seed Money recently posted…An Oldie But A Goodie: Investing Like Warren BuffetMy Profile

    1. I have developed a similar system to get my work under control. On Friday I’ll look at the big picture for the week ahead and assign one or two big items to each day of the following week. Then at the end of each work day I will plan the next work day in detail, incorporating the big picture items and the carry-overs that just didn’t get done as well as whatever little things need to be taken care of. It has been a real game changer in terms of productivity.

      Thanks for the comment!
      Matt recently posted…The Things We Cannot ChangeMy Profile

  6. So true! Multi-tasking can be a huge downfall. And to think we use to put it on the top of our resumes and wear it like a badge of honor.

    Braindumps and prioritizing tasks lists definitely help, although sometimes I’ll get too many notebooks going at the same time which is just as bad. I need to figure out how to control that too.

    I’m looking forward to reading Deep Work. Do you have a recommend reading list, Matt?

    1. I am definitely still working on perfecting a note-organizing system. It is hard to find a balance between too many notebooks and lists and too few to the point that they are cluttered and unusable.

      I used to link to a page that was all of the books that I referenced in articles. I took it down because it looked messy and unprofessional and I decided to pull it until I could get a more user-friendly design. It still exists if you’d like to brave the clutter (

      I read a lot, so I have a lot of recommendations depending on what you’re looking for. I have a few books in the non-fiction/self-improvement space that I have read multiple times or have flagged to read again because they bring so much value. Some of those are Deep Work, Cal Newport’s other book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and Tools of Titans. Feel free to let me know if you have any specific areas you’re interested in and I will be happy to recommend some others.
      Matt recently posted…Make a Plan! (Or Don’t)My Profile

      1. I’m trying to use Evernote…there’s a learning curve 🙂

        Thanks Matt, I’ll check out the list! I read a lot as well, and have heard of all those books, but it’s nice to have a genuine recommendation from someone that the book has helped. I’ll check them out.

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