Serial-Tasking, Not Multi-Tasking, Makes You 50% More Productive

Serial-Tasking, Not Multi-Tasking, Makes You 50% More Productive

We’ve come to think of multi-tasking as the miracle thing that allows us to do more in less time, but the truth is, multi-tasking makes you 50% slower than focused tasking.  And you make 50% more mistakes, to boot.

Multi-tasking, in the way it is often defined in job descriptions, is the ability to work on several distinct priorities simultaneously; to make multi-factorial decisions and to progress on each one of these priorities.  Now compare this with the definition that most people give to multi-tasking: the ability to work and focus simultaneously on several tasks that require concentration, all at once, to compress time and be more productive.  It’s become the new definition of a productive, well-rounded, busy individual. But is it really more productive, or just an illusion?

Is multi-tasking really more productive?  Science, wholeheartedly, says no.  Unless it’s a combination of a focused task (mindful) with an automatic task (mindless); for instance, you’re answering the phone (mindful) while doodling (mindless).  But trying to divide your attention into two or more competing focuses that require some thought?  It doesn’t work: your brain doesn’t work that way.  Your brain can only focus on one complex cognitive task at one time.

If you have to think consciously about what you are doing, it’s a complex cognitive task.  Deciding about what to write in an email is one; so is having a coherent phone conversation.  It’s important to differentiate a conscious, mindful cognitive task from a rehearsed mindless one, such as an acquired set of complex skills that have become automatic, such as driving home without having to think about it; or switching to a second language without effort.  A complex cognitive task could be writing a report, or listening intently – but if at the same time you’re responding to emails and checking the next deadlines requirements, you’re much less productive than if you did each one of these tasks in sequence with a fully focused brain.  You’re wasting time, effort and energy.

Do you remember your first driving lesson?  There were pedals, gauges, signals, seatbelts to think about.  Everything was overwhelmingly complicated: you had to check your mirrors, learn the location of hand controls, look at the road, put your turn signals on, and check for traffic, pedestrians and dogs.  Crazy.  But today?  You can drive, listen to music, carry on a conversation.  It’s become so easy because your brain has mastered and automatized a complex task.  Not so for writing a coherent report, or preparing a complex new dish for your picky in-laws.  To do well, you have to focus on that one task, then move on to the next quickly.  Focusing on one task, then quickly moving on to the next: this is what serial-tasking is about.

Serial-tasking refers to short bursts of focused work, usually no more than 20 minutes.  They are usually clustered in 2 or 3 bursts of 15-20 minutes, with each cluster of 3-4 bursts separated by a short break (usually 5-10 minutes).  These short breaks are often called “detachment breaks”, to make it clear it’s about detaching yourself from the task at hand, and from work at large – a moment to let your brain rest, after no more than 90 minutes of intense focused brain activity.   Time-wise, it looks like this: four 15-minute bursts (60 minutes) plus a break (5 minutes) = 65-minute cycle of highly productive, focused work.

Serial-tasking is simple to learn and use for most of your work or home tasks.  All you need is a kitchen timer or an alarm, which you set up for a predetermined time, say 15 minutes.  I personally use an egg time that can go up to one hour.  Select a task –simple or complex.  It could be part of a much larger project or a small thing. Whatever you choose, 15-20 minutes of intense focused work will help carry you forward productively, and that’s what matters.  Don’t try to prepare for a flawless 15 minutes: instead, just get started.  That’s the beauty of serial-tasking: it’s simple and self contained!  For 15 minutes, you focus only on the task chosen, no interruptions, no checking emails, no taking calls.

Serial-tasking in five steps: 

  1. Select a task for your first “focused burst”, simple or complex. Whatever you choose, 15-20 minutes of intense focused work will help carry you forward productively, and that’s what matters.
  2. Assign a duration (typically 15-20 minutes) and enter it into your timer.
  3. During that 15 minutes, focus only on the task chosen.  No interruptions, no checking emails, no taking calls. Start your task, aware that after just 15 minutes, you can move on to something else
  4. When the timer goes off, stop
  5. Three choices: (1) choose another focused task and repeat, or (2) add a second burst to your current task, or (3) take a 5-10 minute break – and use that time to relax, not to check your phone (for your brain, this would be a task, not a break)

Serial-tasking makes you more productive, because:

  1. It helps you build a longer attention span, with a deeper focus – in other words, it trains your brain to be highly productive
  2. It keeps out the rest of demands, while reassuring you that in just 15-20 minutes, you can deal with the rest of the world – it takes away the pressure from getting away too long, and FOMO (fear of missing out – on anything)
  3. You feel off the hook – it’s just 15 minutes after all.
  4. At the end of a serial-tasking day, you know you’ve completed tasks you never got to before.  Congratulations!

So, how does multi-tasking compare with focused serial tasking?

  1. Multi-tasking slows you down by 50%, and increases mistakes by 50%, according to Dr. John Medina’s, a neuro-biologist whose work is around what makes your brain more (or less) performant. What kind of mistake?  Big and small, and the more you multi-task, the more you make.
  2. Are women or men better at multitasking? Neither men nor women dominate when it comes to multi-tasking.  Because your brain can only focus on one conscious activity at a time.  So yes, you can fold laundry as you carry on a conversation with your toddler, or drive and have an intense conversation with your passenger.  One of the two activities has become automatic programming and runs in the background.  But make these two conscious activities carried on simultaneously, and your brain goes berserk – it constantly needs to transition between focuses, losing important bits of information, and using up fuel like crazy to keep up.
  3. Focused serial tasking allows you to pay attention to how you are showing up at work and in your life.  Whether writing an email or listening intently, you come through as focused and in control.  Multi-tasking makes you look (and feel) frazzled, distracted and confused.
  4. The end result of multi-tasking? You feel stressed out; you’re not accomplishing much; you’re not completing any task.  And your brain is learning, through a cycle of start-interrupt-refocus, to function erratically, and you lose important attention span and ability to focus.  If you’re getting paid for your skills and your mind’s sharpness, definitely not a great idea.




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