I'm Living, Breathing Proof That Multitasking's Making You Worse at Your Job

I love TV. But I’m not very good at watching it. Which is insane because it really only involves three very simple steps:

  1. Turn the TV on.
  2. Face eyeballs toward the TV.
  3. Watch.

I usually go wrong by adding a fourth step into the mix: Scroll through my phone until the battery dies or my thumb goes numb—really whichever comes first. And because I do that, I end up having to rewind a lot. A 60-minute episode takes me, on average, about four hours to get through.

I mean, I don’t plan on this happening. I always think I can do both. Yet every single time, I’ll get so engrossed in my social media that by the time I look back at the TV, the main character’s dead.

And I’m all like, What? How did that happen? Just mere moments ago she was getting married. And now her ex-husband (they married and divorced!) is at her funeral with their three kids (she didn’t even want kids!)…in space (they used to live on Earth!).

I approach meetings at work the same way. I bring my computer along just in case I need to reference stats, facts, emails, dog memes, charts, and so on. I always plan on paying attention. But one “let me just respond to this email real fast ” turns into another. And before I know it, I’m deep into a project that’s not due for several months. And I don’t realize I’m not exactly focusing until I’m called on.

You know who doesn’t earn a reputation as a hard worker? The person who responds to “Jenni, what do you think about that?” with “Um, well, in my brain I have thoughts, which do things like think, so I think a lot about that, but with my thinking thoughts, I’d have to say, yes? Or the face you’re making suggests that the answer is no? Hm, is it not a ‘yes or no’ question? Can I have a hint? Can I offer you a dog meme?”

Recently, I had a three-hour meeting that my co-worker banned laptops from. I protested. I cried. I claimed the world would fall apart. The answer remained—even though I brought my computer in with me, I was not allowed to even think about opening it up.

And I’ll tell you what!

In that meeting, the world not only didn’t fall apart, but I also got so much more out of it. It’s amazing how productive a meeting can be when you’re not half-listening, half-passive-aggressive-email-chain-fighting over a bridal shower gift.

So, why am I telling you this story? Because I bet you’re like me. That you think you’re the one exception to the “multitasking makes you less productive” rule. Even if you can’t bring your computer to meetings, or you don’t have meetings, I’d guess there are times when you try to do two things at once. And that you’re worse off for it.

This week, I challenge you to try doing one thing at a time. Maybe that’s setting aside time to check your email—and only your email. Maybe it’s turning your Wi-Fi off while you finish up that big presentation. Maybe it’s putting your phone away until that project’s completed. Or, maybe it’s not deep-diving into your high school frenemy’s Instagram while you’re trying to watch your favorite show.

Whatever you choose to do, do it—just for one week. I don’t want to play psychic, but I feel confident that you’ll be amazed how much better you are at doing something when you’re focusing on just that. (And if you try, but are truly struggling to pull it off, read this right away.)

When you finish your experiment, let me know on Twitter how it went. Or just endorse me for “being psychic” on LinkedIn and I’ll get the hint.

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About Richard Moy

Richard Moy
Richard Moy is a Content Marketing Writer at Stack Overflow. He has spent the majority of his career in talent management, including a stint as a full-cycle recruiter and hiring manager. In addition to the career advice he contributes to The Muse, he also writes test prep and higher education marketing content for The Economist. Say hi on Twitter @rich_moy.

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