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The Cost of Multitasking

Sure, we can multitask, but we can’t multitask as well as we think we can.

Multitasking is common in the age of digital media — we have access to so many things and think we can do multiple things well all at once. The hard truth is, we can’t. Sure, we can multitask, but we can’t multitask as well as we think we can.

I attended a marketing conference for work last week in Sacramento. The keynote presentation was given by Pam Cox Otto, CEO at Interact Communications. While she focused on things marketing professionals should and should not do in community college marketing, I thought I would share her points about multitasking because they carry over into pretty much anything we do that requires focus.

1. When you multitask, you lose about 40 percent of your work week.

This seemed like an overstatement to me until I thought about it. I do lose a lot of time in all my tasks when I try doing multiple things at once.

2. The more you attempt, the less you actually do.

Pam shared a statistic that said you lose 30 percent of your efficiency by multitasking (from Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel Goleman). This made total sense. Instead of working on one project at a time and finishing it completely before starting another, I tend to work on multiple projects at once. When I do that, I make incredibly slow progress, and nothing gets finished in the meantime.

3. It takes time to focus — and more time to refocus.

For me, this was her most interesting point. She said it takes 15-20 minutes to focus on what we’re doing. When that focus is broken by our cell phone going off or an email or someone walking into our office at work, it takes another 15-20 minutes to get our thoughts back on track. And then, unfortunately, we lose 30 percent of the thoughts we had before. We don’t get all the genius back.

4. Focus for 90 minutes at a time.

This was a great suggestion. She said she tells her co-workers she’s working for the next 90 minutes, puts a sign on her door, closes it and clears away all distractions. She focuses on her work for 90 minutes, and then she catches up on emails and anything else that needs her attention. She found that for her, she got more things done using this process.

I had to write a term paper over the weekend, so I put her statistics to the test. I didn’t quite make it to 90-minute segments, but I did get myself to focus for an hour at a time. I found that when I turned my phone upside down (it’s always on silent), closed Facebook and turned off the TV, I actually got quite a bit of work done in what felt like a really short amount of time.

The process reminds me a little bit of lectio divina, a technique for studying Scripture I learned in one of my Bible classes in college. It’s a process of quieting down before God by reading a small passage of Scripture several times and then focusing in prayer and silence on the parts that stand out. I think it carries over into other disciplines in our spiritual lives as well.

If we’re in church but too busy tweeting the message, are we really getting as much out of it as we could if we gave the pastor our full attention? If we’re doing our daily Scripture reading but have Facebook open on the computer in front of us — or we’re reading on our phones where we could get a pop-up text or email notification — are we really that focused?

It can be hard to set aside distractions, but it’s good practice to start small and build to the perfect amount of time we can fully focus and be truly efficient.

Copyright 2014 Amy Kessler. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Amy Kessler

Amy Kessler interned with the Boundless team in 2011 and is a journalism graduate from Biola University with a minor in biblical studies. She has experience in newspapers, magazines, blogging, social media and online content management. Amy lives in California where she works as a marketing assistant for a community college district and blogs about her spiritual life. She enjoys playing tennis, experimenting with HTML, and discussing marriage and relationships.

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