Illustration of a woman multitasking between a laptop and desktop computer

According to the American Psychological Association, switching from one task to another can decrease productivity by up to 40 per cent. (Illustration by Wenting Li)

@Work | Tools

The myth of multitasking: The more you have to do, the less productive you’ll be, research shows

Never mind that lengthy to-do list. These five tips will help boost your efficiency to get things done.

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With technology taking over our daily tasks, you would think we’d find less to pile on our plates. Yet, we appear to be busier than ever. Moving from tab to tab to tab on a browser, flipping from one social media platform to another, using several devices at the same time—all while eating lunch at our desks or while in the middle of a meeting—multitasking seems to be at its peak.

But what exactly does all this juggling mean for our productivity? Not much, it turns out. According to the American Psychological Association, switching from one task to another can decrease productivity by up to 40 per cent. The National Institutes of Health says that by taxing the brain’s prefrontal cortex—which is responsible for things like decision-making, planning and moderating social behaviour—the amount of information the brain can receive, and process, is negatively impacted. Essentially, task shifting causes us to slow down and be less efficient at both activities. 

It’s a bad habit that takes away from how we serve our clients, utilize our employees, and run our businesses, says Joe Girard, a sales coach and trainer who is based in Victoria, B.C. “It’s a myth that I’m really busy and productive. But it just looks busy. So busy is a badge of honour we wear,” says Girard. “When you are not interacting with customers like you should be, we are missing an opportunity to make that connection.” 

So how can you manage that overwhelming long list of to-dos? Here are five tips from Girard on how to turn your fidget-spinning multitasking efforts into tangible, real-time, results.

1. Stack it

Rather than fretting over a lengthy list of to-dos, turn them into a stack of Post-it notes, organized by priority or from the most complex to the simplest task. Complete one task at a time, toss away the Post-it and move on.  

2. Carve out time

Is checking emails taking up hours in your day? Rather than coming back to your inbox every five minutes, carve out a block of time for emails each day—and keep it consistent. There may be times when emails integrate with other tasks. Avoid getting dragged into checking them all. Stick with those related to the task at hand. 

3. Be present

This, here, is twofold. It’s important to take space for yourself. Get away from your desk to eat lunch, make time for that workout or simply be still for a few minutes—shutting off your monitor, phone or whatever device(s) you’re using. Declutter your mind and be present in self-care. 

Remember to be present for others. Whether you’re in a team meeting, at a client luncheon or having dinner with your kids, detach from everything else—in your hands and mind. Pay attention to what is being said and going on around you. “When we are worried about that stuff that just happened and thinking of the stuff we have to do later, we are not present with the person we are with in that moment,” says Girard. 

4. Customize flexibility

We, and the companies we work for, are too focused on work-life balance with a one-size-fits-all approach to flexibility, says Girard. Productivity levels are not linked to whether you’re permitted to work from home one day a week or play ping pong in the lunch room. Rather, it’s connected to your professional role (whether you’re self-employed, and whether you’re senior or entry-level), how you work and what else is going on in your life. Did your spouse just give birth? Do you find open-concept workspaces an ultimate distraction? We each come with unique, and likely fluid, preferences that should be accommodated, while still adhering to company protocol. 

“[We need to] start focusing on, ‘Let’s get stuff done and once you finish it, go home, go golf, go to yoga—I don’t care, let’s make it happen,’” says Girard. “Employers [must] set expectations that push people out of their comfort zone but not into panic zone.” 

5. Set boundaries

To set and stick to boundaries, determine the hours and effort you should put in based on your role, talent, knowledge and the skillset you bring, as well as the company or client you work for. Establishing these from the get-go is best, but there’s always room for revision.

“Most people haven’t set a really clear process…and [they] become victim to an open-door policy,” says Girard. “[It’s about] controlling your space while being mindful of the people who need you.” 


Delve deeper into multitasking, strategic thinking and the role of the brain’s prefrontal cortex when it comes to leadership with CPA Canada’s The Neuroscience of Leadership.