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Productivity: Accomplish More by Doing Less

Every day, a neighbor walks by my house with his head stuck in a book. I watch as he strolls and reads. I wait for the inevitable fall, yet he never so much as stumbles.

Either the perambulating bookworm is a supertasker — yes, there is such a thing — or he’s tripping and falling out of my line of sight. Here’s a hint that it’s the latter: a bandage around his wrist one day, a wrapped ankle another.

Although we insist otherwise, almost no one, my neighbor included, does two things at once very well. A recent study of multitasking by a University of Utah professor estimated that the percentage of supertaskers, people who excel at doing tasks in tandem, is, at most, 2 percent. That same research found that the more you insist you are great at multitasking, the more likely you are horrible at it. And your car probably has the dents to prove it.

What seems like such a winning idea — getting more done by doing more at once — is an ill-advised strategy. As we’ve read many times, multitasking is dangerous, sometimes deadly. Just check the stats for driving while texting or talking on the phone. It is, studies show, as bad as or worse than driving drunk.

Multitasking also damages our minds. When we multitask, our brain must quickly shift from one thing to another, and that takes a lot of energy and time. So, multitasking depletes us mentally and makes us less efficient.

Multitasking might also be damaging your career and personal life. Travis Bradberry, an author who writes about emotional intelligence, says that fiddling with a phone in a meeting or sending text messages in social settings demonstrates a low level of self-awareness and social awareness. People who are most successful in work and life demonstrate high levels of those two qualities.

Like any habit, multitasking can be hard to break. Taking small steps might be the best way to retrain your brain and point it toward focusing instead of the frenzy.

Work in Batches With Breaks

Try focusing on one project for a set period, followed by a short break. To start, it might be 10 or 20 minutes, with a five-minute break to check email or phone messages or get a cup of coffee. Limit yourself to answering only emails and messages that are urgent during these brief breaks. Remember that studies have shown that a “quick response” to an email takes 10 to 20 minutes on average.

After you use batches and breaks, your brain will start to enjoy the accomplishment that comes from focusing on projects to completion. This focus, ultimately, could give you more value in your workplace, according to Cal Newport, a professor from Georgetown University. He told Fast Company, “Shallow tasks like reading and responding to emails or checking social media might prevent you from getting fired, but it’s deep tasks that produce the value and build the skills that get you promoted.” A bonus is that “if you can increase your focus, you’ll get more done in less time,” he said.

Dispense With Distractions

A desk piled with upcoming projects, multiple screens fighting for attention, coworkers chatting or dropping in to catch up: Offices are mined with distractions.

Do all you can to create a distraction-free zone. Clear everything off your desk except the project you are working on. Wear headphones or ear plugs; if you have an office door, close it. Turn off your email and cell phone. Make sure that the only document on your computer screen is for the project you are working on. And then, take it one project at a time.