The secret to better productivity

Photo credit - Glenn Carstens-Peters via

Photo credit – Glenn Carstens-Peters via

Productivity in a time of information overload can be challenging. It is easy to succumb to the temptations of overindulging in information. The truth is that multi-tasking is not the answer. So, what is?

The answer is single-tasking
This is achieved by performing one task at a time, focusing on it and not keeping other tasks on your mind. A simple tool to achieve this is a list.

  • Make a list
    Make a list of everything you have to do. Clear it out of your head so neural resources are not used up trying to remember those tasks/things.
  • Prioritise your list
    Order your list according to priority. It is very easy to respond or react to the latest thing that comes in to your in-box or what you were working on the previous day. Not prioritising leaves you vulnerable to the environment, determining your day.

[If] we are letting the environment tell us how to spend our time …
[we are] not being very planful or deliberate

~ Dr Daniel Levitin

Making it work
Levitin suggests we can only hold about four things in our mind at any one time. That’s right – four! If we attempt to retain more than that, remembering them competes for neural resources that could otherwise be used for the task at hand at that moment.

A list works because you brain is smart enough to know you wrote things down. If you prioritise list items (and follow it), you can be more productive and complete the most important things.

If interruption is likely, put a contingency plan in place. Let others know you are single-tasking and you are not to be interrupted.

When you single-task, you will complete that task with greater quality of output. You will learn from it and may actually remember what happened.

Why not multi-task?
Neuroscientists tell us that multitasking is a myth. But why? What happens in our brains when we attempt to do multiple things at the same time?

The brain doesn’t work on multiple things at the same time. As you shift your attention from one thing to another your brain engages a neurochemical switch that uses up nutrients in the brain. Multi-tasking requires it to rapidly shift from one thing to the next, depleting resources as you go.

Effects of multi-tasking

  • Fatigue
    Every switch of attention uses glucose. There is a limited supply of glucose available multitasking makes it hard to think straight as it fatigues us.
  • Stress
    Research investigating work habits of people who work online, showed that they can shift their attention to a task every 45 seconds. This means they experience a general continual shifting of attention throughout the day. They were monitored for the effects on their bodies. The finding was that the more people shift their attention, the higher their stress level is.
  • Reduced productivity
    If you are immersed in a task and are interrupted, getting back into that working sphere again can take more than 20 minutes.
  • A pattern of self-interruption develops
    Interruption can become habitual. Research shows that when external interruptions are high then say in the next period they wane, people self-interrupt from internal sources.

Less is more …
The information here is probably not new to you. It is interesting to know how our brain can work to produce quality outputs or, can fall foul of task overload. The answer seems to be, take on less, do it well and get more out of the process.

Are you a reformed multi-tasker? Would you share your experience here?

Spring cleaning for the mind” podcast by Note to Self, guest speakers Dr Daniel Levitin (Professor of Psychology, Behavioural Neuroscience) & Dr Gloria Mark (Professor of Informatics), 12 April 2017.

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