Between the ages of 15 and 27, I waited tables at dozens of restaurants, from five-star dining rooms to greasy spoon taverns. Anyone who has ever waited tables can tell you that there are times when your head spins as customers signal to you from across the room, cooks ding bells to let you know an order is up, and your brain struggles to hold onto the last three orders you took.
For years, every busy lunch shift was a wild and hairy attempt to respond to each need immediately and juggle each request masterfully. Then, in the midst of a Mardi Gras rush in a French Quarter restaurant, I achieved minor enlightenment. The flurry of loud diners and bustling wait staff seemed to slow down, and my panic ebbed away. I realized that by rushing around in an effort to do everything at once, I made more mistakes than money.
For the rest of that shift, I worked at a steady but serene pace, stopping to speak to each table reassuringly, handling one task at a time with my full attention. I didn’t allow myself to rush or panic. At the end of the shift, I wasn’t exhausted or angry, and I hadn’t lost any tips as a result of my single-minded approach.
To this day, when I begin to feel overwhelmed, I recall that moment of complete clarity, and I apply it to the situation at hand.
Are you even multitasking though?
We often feel that it’s necessary to multitask in order to prove our productivity at work. However, switching back and forth among different jobs causes more harm than good.
Though we may take pride in our multitasking abilities, research has shown time and again that humans aren’t nearly as good at it as we think we are. Yes, I can juggle numerous tasks at once. That doesn’t mean that I’ll do it well. Or that I should do it at all.
More to the point, we’re not usually multitasking at all. Rather, we’re task-switching: moving back and forth between activities.
Task-switching comes with switching-costs.
While task-switching may create the illusion of diligence, it’s detrimental to real productivity. A series of experiments conducted in 2001 showed that students who had to switch between tasks lost time with each switch. The more complex the tasks, the longer it took for participants to switch and the more time was lost.
The switching cost may be relatively small – just enough time for your brain to recalibrate – but as we switch over and over again, i.e. multitask, that cost adds up, becoming an enormous drain on time and energy. David Meyer, PhD, one of the lead researchers on the 2001 claims that the brief mental blocks that result from shifting between activities can reduce productivity as much as 40 percent.
Take a deep breath and focus.
Mad rushing and a furor of activity may make you feel productive, but if you discern the subtle differences between being busy and being productive, you’ll appreciate the baselessness of this myth of multitasking.
Next time you’re overwhelmed by demands, rather than scurrying to get it all done at once, take a deep breath and focus on the most important task at hand. When you’re done, move to the next task purposefully but with your full attention. You’ll increase your productivity, decrease your stress, and improve the quality of your work.