Do you pride yourself on being an “excellent multi-tasker”? Do you feel much (or most) of the time like you are Sooo busy, yet don’t really get much done (at least not the truly important things)? Are your relationships at work and outside work suffering because you’re too busy or preoccupied to listen, connect to, and enjoy others? If so, you may be suffering from IPS – illusory productivity syndrome – the belief that being busy and being productive are the same thing, and that being busy is the distinguishing characteristic of the accomplished person.
Well, guess what? We have known for some time that multitasking is not actually efficient. In fact, it is specifically inefficient. Not only that, studies show that individuals who multitask while performing cognitive tasks function significantly below their actual intellectual capacity. What’s worse, multitasking has been shown to produce cortisol, the stress hormone, because the constant shifting and refocusing involved in multitasking is stressful, and it wears us out. Some recent research has even shown adverse changes in brain structures responsible for error detection, social evaluation and empathy, attention, memory and learning, and more, resulting from regular multitasking. Our brains are just not wired for multitasking, so every time we do there is a cognitive cost.
Yet, multitasking feels good, because every time we complete some task (even a tiny one) our brain’s reward system gives us a shot of dopamine. This supports a feedback loop in which completing mini-tasks makes us feel like we’re accomplishing things, and it becomes addicting.
Hopefully, this discussion has you thinking about the contrast between important work and merely urgent things. The difference between busyness and accomplishment is focusing on things that matter. Much of the truly important work we have to do is not urgent and requires us to both prioritize the work and focus effectively on it to move it forward. Prioritizing means creating and protecting designated work time to focus on a task, process, or strategy. Focusing effectively means limiting competing interruptions, putting distractions on hold and single-tasking.
If you want or need to be more productive and less “busy”, you might begin to schedule blocks of uninterrupted time to focus on the important work you want or need to do. This will mean allowing emails to accumulate in your inbox for a time, texts to go unannounced and unresponded to for a time, and ideally blocking your schedule to show as busy to others. Maybe create several set times throughout the day to check and respond to emails and texts, then let them go until your next check-in.
C’mon, let’s save our brains and keep them functioning as they were intended. Your brain will thank you (and maybe others too!)