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Manage your business 14 July 2021

How multitasking kills productivity

Multitasking, which inevitably involves frequent interruptions and task-switching, is the death of productivity and efficiency. Here’s how you can make better use of your time, and that of your employees.

Nadine Todd, 20 July 2015

In 1992, before email, social media and smartphones, the average office worker was interrupted 73 times every day. Imagine what those figures are today.

A recent study, conducted by Professor Gloria Mark of the Department of Informatics at the University of California, reveals some disturbing statistics: the average amount of time that people spend on any single event before being interrupted, or before switching tasks, is about 3 minutes. The average amount of time spent working on a device before switching is even more fleeting: 2 minutes and 11 seconds. If they are not interrupted, most workers spend 12 minutes on a task.

That might not seem so surprising since we’re all busy professionals, but here’s the scary statistic: although about 82% of all interrupted work is resumed on the same day, it can take up to 23 minutes to get back on track. That’s a lot of wasted time, and the question must be asked, “Was it worth it?”

Interruptions and wasted time

Franck Tétard, from the Institute for Advanced Management Systems Research in Finland, has developed the Theory of the Fragmentation of Working Time (FWT) based on his extensive surveys of working environments.

According to his theory, only 20% of interruptions fall into the critical and important zones. The remaining 80% are of little to no value. The problem becomes obvious when you take previous statistics into account.

By Tétard’s figures, an office worker is interrupted once every 8 minutes, which is more than 7 times per hour. That means you can expect 50 to 60 interruptions in an average workday. Even if a typical interruption only lasts 5 minutes, you’ve still spent 250 minutes, or 4 of your 8 working hours, dealing with interruptions.

And given that only 20% of this is spent on important matters, then 80%, or 3 hours and 20 minutes, is wasted on interruptions that are not worthy of your time.

Work from home

These numbers were calculated for a typical, pre-pandemic office environment. Many people expected to find themselves more productive when working from home as they could no longer be interrupted by colleagues and would have more freedom to control their own daily schedules without a manager leaning over their shoulder. Unfortunately, we’ve simply changed the nature of our interruptions. Instead of colleagues stopping by your desk to ask a question, we’re answering direct messages because we are now always reachable. Parents have it doubly hard as children require constant attention, which makes for even more interruptions and distractions.

Zoned times

How does this impact productivity in your workspace? Melody Tomlinson, co-creator and licensor of The Performance Booster Programme, says that one of the best productivity tips is to zone your time.

“Focus exclusively on specific tasks and don’t allow yourself to be distracted by things that appear urgent but aren’t a priority,” she says.

“We advise setting up automated email responses that outline specific times when you answer emails. This way, no one thinks you’re ignoring them, and they know when they can expect a reply. It’s important for this to become a company policy though: it can create internal conflict if one department is expecting an answer to an urgent mail and feels they are being ‘ignored’.

"The world won’t end if an email remains unanswered for two hours: it just means everyone has to plan ahead and is proactive about their time, rather than reactive. With this one simple system, productivity should skyrocket.”

Focused productivity

Other tips for both you and your team include the following:

  • Plan your day in blocks. If you set times to return calls, answer emails and address admin tasks, you’re less likely to do these when you need to focus on more important (high-priority) tasks.
  • Practise improving your concentration. Focus on one task at a time, and don’t switch tasks until it’s complete.
  • Build your will power. Every time you want to check an email or switch tasks, take a deep breath until the urge passes. Stay on task.
  • Turn your alerts off. They are designed to pull your attention to themselves, but such distractions are very bad for your productivity.
  • If you find yourself multitasking, stop. Take five minutes to refocus. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. It might feel like time wasted, but it will be worth it once you’re back on task. Remember, even short breaks can focus the mind, lower stress levels and improve your concentration.
  • If something urgent interrupts what you’re doing, don’t multitask. Stop what you’re doing and give the new task your full attention.
  • If you find your mind wandering, mentally tell yourself what you’re doing. Be present in the task at hand.
  • Manage your interruptions and distractions.