Why multitasking is killing your productivity as a scientist
Updated: Nov 4
We all multitask. You may be doing it right now while reading this. You may have done it when speaking with your mother or your partner on the phone and writing an email at the same time. And a day later you were angry with that partner because “he” didn’t tell you that was cycling that night…The thing is, we can do many things at the same time, but we cannot concentrate on more than one (and he did tell you by the way…).
I used to think I was a very good multi-tasker, and maybe I was because I could do many things at the same time. But that meant that I was not efficient at any of them!
And the problem is that when we are working, and when we are writing, we multi-task in very subtle things that we may not even realize. So here I’d like to share why multitasking is killing your scientific productivity, and give you some examples so you can detect when you do it, and stop!
1) You’ll have a lower attention span
Those people that multi-task have a lower attention span than those that don’t. When you multitask, it’s easy to enter a loop of distraction and procrastination. For example, you are in a zoom meeting, but every now and then you go to Twitter to have a look. When you do this every time a task is boring or difficult, you are training yourself to procrastinate. The good news is, you can do something about it! Some of my favorite tips are: 1) shut down distractions, like that telephone that is screaming at you; 2) use the Pomodoro method, be strong, and resist the urge to multitask at least for 25 min; 3) meditate! Yes, again…because it can increase your attention span!
2) It’s costing you time
Switching between tasks has a cost. You are writing your paper, but your email is open in a tab, so every now and then you check if you have a new email. Well, know that every time you look at your email, on top of the time you spend, you are losing a minute of efficiency. And you are probably checking your email every 5 min! (you can do the maths to see how much time is costing you…). On top of that, depending on the task, the cost can be much higher! Think for example when that email brings some disturbing news or something that keeps your head busy the whole day. What you can do instead, is batching your tasks, so you can focus longer on the same type of task (you can get a planner here to help you with that!).
3) It’s costing you energy
Multitasking is exhausting. The world is experiencing this right now, working from home, with family and work life more intertwined than ever, and attending meetings in Zoom with plenty of multitasking opportunities. And the problem is that we do it in very subtle ways…for example when you are writing, but then stop every 5 min to check some paper that you want to write about! Instead, try to focus on one task at a time, and do mindful breaks between those tasks! (for ideas about mindful breaks you can go here).
This willingness to multitask comes from a culture of doing more. Now, I am trying hard to do less, to focus, and to have a few priorities per week. And it is tough. But when you commit to do less, you can put more clarity on what your priority for the day is. And with that, you can focus on that priority on your most effective hours (did I hear scientific writing?). Work in progress over here…