Why Multitasking is a Terrible Idea

OMG, there’s so much stuff to do!!! How will I ever finish everything?

I’m so busy I could die!


If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. In fact, it’s the lament of many law students, and most lawyers. I once walked into a partner’s office at a law firm, and she uttered the above, verbatim. I commiserated, then happened to glance at her computer screen – she was shoe shopping.

When you’ve got a lot of stuff to do, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. However, there is a solution.

It’s conceptually simple, but challenging to implement: single task. Yes, single task. Do one thing at a time. That’s it.

Multitasking Is Bad for Productivity

When you switch tasks, your brain has to do a reboot to put away the information it was working with, and dredge up new information. It’s just like a computer – if you had to turn your computer off and restart it every time you switched tasks, imagine how inefficient you’d be!

Every time your brain reboots, whether it’s answering an email or having a quick IM conversation, it takes time. Studies suggest it takes 15 minutes to get back into the groove after your concentration is broken. Even if you’re super efficient and it only takes you five or ten minutes, think about how many times a day you switch tasks. Between email, text messaging, IM, phone calls, or even a quick discussion with your roommate about what to have for dinner, the average law student has literally hundreds of interruptions in a day. Hundreds! It’s no wonder no one gets anything done.

Whatever, This Doesn’t Really Apply to Me

Even if you don’t think it will make a difference, I’d encourage you to try single tasking and see if it helps. Personally, I thought I could block out distractions and get things done, no problem, but I was wrong. I recently switched from working at my kitchen table to working in an isolated office, and it has made a huuuuuuuuuuuge difference in my productivity. Huge.

When I thought I was working before, I was really thinking about what I’d make for lunch in a few hours, or if my fermenting sauerkraut needed some attention, or whether the dishes in the dishwasher were clean. I was distracted, and I got very little done as a result. Now that I work in office with a desk, a chair, a computer, and nothing else, it’s a whole new world. Cutting down on the distractions caused my productivity to skyrocket!

How To Single Task

So, how do you start to single task? It can be a difficult process, because most of us have trained people to expect immediate communication. You have to un-train them.

  • Think about whether you need to answer the phone. Personally, I hate talking on the phone, but I still have a compulsion to answer it when it rings. Unless it’s a potential emergency situation, or I make a calculation that it’s more efficient to pick up than deal with a voicemail, I just don’t answer. I route most of my calls through Google Voice, which does a passable transcription and sends it to me in a text/email, so I often don’t even have to listen to the message. Then, 90% of the time, I send an email back, rather than placing a call. Much more efficient, and less disruptive on both sides. (This technique can be very effective with older law firm partners, who love to hear themselves talk for some reason.)
  • Don’t always respond immediately to emails. If you’re going to take back control of your time, you have to deal with the email deluge. People have developed tons of techniques, like only checking email at certain times of day, but none of that’s ever worked for me. What I have found works is just not to hit send immediately all the time. You can compose a draft, and send it hours later, so the response is off your plate, but the sender doesn’t expect an immediate response the next time they email you. Do this enough, and your lack of response will seem normal. That’s what you’re looking for!
  • Work in focused blocks of time, and take real breaks. Focused effort is more efficient, but your brain also needs breaks. You simply can’t work 24 hours a day, because you’re not a computer, you’re a person. Learning to focus while you’re working, and forget about work when you’re not will change your life, guaranteed. These tips for time management awesomeness show you how.
  • Finally, pay attention to where you’re working. It’s helpful to find different places to work, so you can match your physical environment to the type of work you’re doing. If you’re working on something rote and boring, a coffee shop might be perfect – the added stimulation can keep you alert enough to complete your tasks. However, if you’re doing serious reading or writing, you may be better off at an isolated library desk, where there are fewer distractions. Everyone has their own preferences, but it’s worth it to search out spaces that enhance your productivity.
Work Less, Do More

Ultimately, you have the ability to work less and get more done. But you’ve got to focus. It’s not easy, but the results are worth it!

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Have you experimented with single tasking? How did it work out?

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