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Irma Becerra is president of Marymount University, a comprehensive doctoral-granting university known for its innovative curriculum.
In my previous Forbes article, I discussed essential factors employers and employees should consider when deciding whether to work remotely or at the office. While the assumption is employees prefer remote work and employers prefer on-site, this decision may offer many challenges from both perspectives, including decreased innovation, a lack of access to a proper environment that supports productivity and a lack of adequate mentoring—particularly for younger employees.
Another challenge I frequently hear from employers and employees is how remote work often requires multitasking. The concept of multitasking from a computing perspective is what allows a computer to run multiple programs (processes or tasks) simultaneously by switching the execution of the computer’s central processor across different computer programs.
Multitasking gives the impression that the programs are running simultaneously when, in fact, the computer shifts its attention across the various programs it’s executing—known as context switching. The same concept of multitasking allows individuals to simultaneously perform more than one task, so when you are doing more than one activity you are actually switching your attention between tasks.
In computing, context switching saves all the critical information needed to stop and restart a program. Similarly, humans need to have enough information “saved” to stop and restart an activity when context switching, using significant energy and mental resources. This is precisely why employers and employees alike are exhausted after a long day of back-to-back zoom calls.
One of the biggest culprits for our modern propensity to multitask is the ubiquity of smartphones. When the Covid shutdown sent millions home to work remotely, smartphones became a constant companion offering seemingly endless connections and distractions. When my university surveyed students early on during the pandemic about how well they performed with remote learning, they cited distractions like parents, siblings and the internet.
Distractions due to multitasking, with the required context switching, has been shown to lower productivity, create stress and lead to burnout. For many, tackling the ever-evolving demands of work and home is a chronic issue with severe consequences. A big part of the problem is that the costs incurred by task switching are unknown to many, with studies showing most people overestimate their multitasking capabilities.
In reality, only 2.5% of people can multitask (download required). The reason is simple—the human brain struggles to focus on more than one thing simultaneously. To do great work consistently calls for complete focus, free of preoccupied thinking. In addition, juggling various tasks at once can lead to information overload, which further taxes the brain and leads to even more fractured thinking and cognitive chaos.
Research going back decades confirms that the goal shifting and rule activation needed to multitask can negatively impact our brains’ executive functioning. Essentially, studies confirm the loss of time during context switching—with time loss increasing depending on the job’s complexity. Another study cited in the American Psychological Association article found that time costs were higher when people handled unfamiliar tasks. Not surprisingly, the research indicates that multitasking can cause mental blocks, robbing a worker’s productivity by as much as 40%.
As a university president, I often observe students splitting their attention on multiple digital devices at once. Furiously typing away on their laptops while glancing at their phones and giving an acknowledging nod to their professor, these students want to see, hear and comprehend the world around them simultaneously. Unfortunately, crucial information is lost when students are distracted by technology. Similarly, employees take the opportunity to move along with their endless email boxes during meetings, which is much easier to do when the meeting is remote. In my experience, when employees are focused on their emails, they don’t give their full attention to the topic at hand, which causes a loss of information for the entire group and diminishes the organization’s productivity.
With all the known pitfalls of multitasking, here are a few actionable steps you can take to begin monotasking for better mental clarity and boosted productivity:
Shut down distractions and limit unnecessary communication.
When the goal is to finish work tasks, close email browsers, shut down the handful of open tabs vying for your attention and silence and place your phone screen-side down. Spreading your focus across various digital devices will lead to frustration at being unable to accomplish any one task well. Also, jumping from one area of focus to another can lead to fragmented thoughts and mentally overwhelm you. To realize innovative gains, take control of your cognitive output by centering your focus on one task at a time.
Step away for micro-breaks between completed tasks.
Take breaks. Stepping away for a few minutes upon completing a task will set you up mentally to move on to the next one with a calm and clear mind. Consider using the Pomodoro Technique, which involves switching between periods of focus and intervals of rest to increase productivity.
Pushing yourself to work consistently with no breaks can lead to fatigue and burnout. A cup of coffee or a short walk outside can do wonders in preparing you to tackle the next challenge on your to-do list.
Change up the work environment for optimal concentration.
If possible, find a quiet space or distraction-free work environment when tackling complex tasks that require undivided and complete focus. One significant drawback of working from home is that shared spaces are often busy and bring schedule interruptions.
When both parents work remotely, a plan for each to occasionally step away when household distractions are too much can prove to be a real lifesaver. A library, quiet coffee shop or outdoor space with Wi-Fi can provide a much-needed change of scenery when work calls for a period of zero distraction.
From my decades of experience in engineering and higher education, I have witnessed how monotasking can improve concentration, increase productivity and lead to greater innovation. Practicing this habit, especially in a world with distractions, can help bring necessary balance, encourage a flow state and allow you to maintain the deep focus needed to complete complex tasks efficiently.