A decade ago, many job descriptions called for applicants who were multi-taskers, however over the last few years, more and more research is showing multi-tasking decreases efficiency, not just at work, but socially as well.

Imagine working on a project on a typical day.  Chances are you will receive a couple phone calls during that time, several emails, visits from coworkers, Skype messages, texts—the list goes on.  I’m getting stressed just writing about all the distractions!

You’ve gotten a good start on the project and then you are interrupted by a more urgent project that needs to be completed immediately while simultaneously receiving an email about a delayed shipment that needs to be delivered by the end of the week.  Add the stack of unfinished work on your desk to your day and chances are, you’ll get the feeling that you will never get anything done.

You sit and fret for a moment, start a to-do list, get overwhelmed by everything on it, plus another few interruptions, take a break to calm your mind then get more stressed out thinking about all the things you should be doing instead.

This is not a productive way to work!  If nothing else, it will send you into such a mind spin that even the best attention deficit order medications couldn’t tame your wild mind.  Multi-tasking actually decreases efficiency because it forces you to interrupt work rather than complete it, leaving you with piles of partially completed tasks instead of one set of completed and one of incomplete.

Additionally, interruptions during a project make it more difficult to pick up where you left off, adding additional time to the project figuring out where to re-start.

To keep your sanity, try these tips at work:

  • Create a general to-do list for your day so you can estimate how much time each task will take and you can prioritize.
  • Schedule blocks of time to work on each project.  Make sure you use that time to work only on that project.
  • Complete your most important tasks first.  Chances are, these tasks are important to someone else and if you complete them first, you won’t be interrupted by that person while working on other projects.
  • Avoid distractions while working on a task.  Don’t read every email you receive during a task and tell others they will have to wait until you are done before you work on their request (if feasible—you can’t always say no to everyone).  Avoid doing anything unrelated to your current task.
  • Stay focused.  If you get tempted to give in to a distraction, stop yourself.  Unless there is a good reason to, it will only delay your completion of the task at hand.
  • Re-prioritize after tasks. When a task is completed, cross it off your list, review your to-do list and revise.  Prioritize to ensure you are completing the most important and most urgent tasks first.
  • Rest.  Allow yourself breaks between tasks to refresh and start with a fresh mind.

Here are a few things I have done outside of work to calm my mind and be more productive as well:

  • Force focus even when not required.  While commuting, avoid changing the radio station frequently.  I got to the point where I spent most of my 30 minute commute changing radio stations and felt pretty crazy by the time I got home.  I started forcing myself to leave the radio on one station and just turn it down during commercials or I turn it off and just enjoy the scenery.  I was much calmer upon arriving at home and it’s less distraction while driving.
  • Mind media overload.  There were times when I had a TV show on, was on the phone and was on my iPod, checking email, news or Facebook.  I realized I was so overloaded that I didn’t retain much of what was going on and felt overwhelmed.  Now I  try to focus on one thing at a time and make a point of remembering what I read or heard so I’m ensuring my attention is properly focused.
  • Focus on one task at a time.  Looking at a messy house can be very stressful and trying to figure out where to start can make it even worse.  Pick one chore to complete at a time and determine the  most efficient path, i.e. unload the dishwasher, clean out the fridge, load the dishwasher, take out the trash, wipe down the counters, clean the floor. Each task builds off the previous task and helps the next task.
  • Eat meals slowly.  Meal time is a time to nourish, rest and relax and should not be stressful.  Take time to fully chew your food and enjoy what you’re eating, even if it’s just microwave popcorn.  Giving yourself a break during meals will allow you to digest properly and let you start on your next task refreshed.

The saner you can keep your mind, the more your focus will increase and your ability to complete tasks efficiently will ultimately make you more productive than trying to take on everything at once.