Ways to stay organised at work: the downside of multitasking

The ability to juggle lots of tasks is usually seen in a positive light. But is working on simultaneous projects always a good thing or are there better ways of working? We look at what multitasking really means and how you can help people manage a varied workload.

how to be more organized at work - Workplace from Meta

The first thing to know about multitasking is that it doesn't really exist. We talk admiringly about coworkers juggling tasks. We watch with wonder as young people seem to post on social media, watch videos, send instant messages and do their homework at the same time. But neuroscience has proved that – however it looks – it isn't possible to do more than one thing at a time.

As Nancy K. Napier explains in Psychology Today, what's actually happening when we seem to be working on tasks simultaneously is that we're switching from task to task very quickly. And that isn't always the most effective way of doing things.

Multitasking and the brain

Multitasking and the brain

Every time we switch from one task to another, a stop-start process goes on in the brain. When we're looking at ways to stay organised at work, it's important to understand what that process involves.

In order to switch tasks, the brain has to do several things. It must:

  • choose to switch tasks
  • switch off the cognitive rules of the old task
  • switch on the cognitive rules of the new task

Although this takes only a few fractions of a second, it's time that can be crucial in some tasks – especially complex or unfamiliar ones. An obvious example is of a driver using a mobile phone when changing lanes, but the same applies when trying to listen to a presentation when you're reading emails on your laptop.

Efficiency and productivity

Efficiency and productivity

Psychologists researching multitasking have come to the conclusion that trying to work on tasks simultaneously isn't very efficient. The time and cognitive loads it involves are too great. In fact, estimates suggest that shifting between tasks can reduce productivity by as much as 40%. What's more, researchers have found that the attention spans of multitaskers are lower than those who do one thing at a time.

Better ways of working

Better ways of working

So, with the possible productivity and efficiency costs in mind, should you be asking employees to multitask? Or are there better ways to stay organised at work?

You may find that giving employees sufficient time and opportunity to complete a task before moving on to the next one will help get things done more efficiently. Providing them with tools that minimise cognitive load may also help. Platforms such as Workplace by Facebook that easily integrate with the other tools you use every day can help avoid the distraction of switching from one platform to another.

Emails can also be a huge distraction and many messages employees receive aren't relevant to what they're doing. Using groups in Workplace can help ensure that employees only have to deal with messages related to the task at hand.

Finally, you can set an example yourself. If employees see you wholeheartedly giving attention to your own tasks, they may well follow suit.

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