Financial Data
Updated 29 Feb 2020

Multitasking really is killing your productivity

Multitasking, interruptions and switching tasks are the death of productivity and efficiency. Here’s how you can make the most of your time, and that of your employees. 

Nadine Todd, 20 July 2015  Share  0 comments  Print

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In 1992, the average office worker was interrupted 73 times every day. This was before email, social media and the smartphone. Imagine what those figures are today.

A much more recent study, conducted by Professor Gloria Mark of the Department of Informatics at the University of California, reveals some disturbing statistics.

Related: Productivity police

The average amount of time that people spend on any single event before being interrupted or before switching tasks is on average about three minutes. The average amount of time spent working on a device before switching is even more fleeting: two minutes and 11 seconds. Most workers spend 12 minutes on a task, assuming they weren’t interrupted.

But here’s the scary statistic: Although about 82% of all interrupted work is resumed on the same day, it can take up to 23 minutes to get back on track. That’s a lot of wasted time, and the question must be asked: Was it worth it.

Interruptions and wasted time

Franck Tétard, from the Institute for Advanced Management Systems Research in Finland, has developed the Theory of the Fragmentation of Working Time (FWT) based on his extensive surveys of working environments. 

According to his theory, only 20% of interruptions fall into the critical and important zones. The remaining 80% are of little to no value.

This wouldn’t be so disturbing if we didn’t take the previous statistics into account, as well as Tétard’s own figures: On average, an office worker is interrupted once every eight minutes, which is about six to seven times an hour.

That equals 50 to 60 interruptions in an average work day. If an average interruption lasts five minutes, you’ve spent 250 minutes, or four hours out of eight, dealing with interruptions. 

Even more worrying, if only 20% of this is spent on important matters, then 80%, or three hours and 20 minutes, is spent on interruptions that are not worthy of your time. 

Zoned timesMultitasking _task -management

How is this impacting the productivity in your office? Melody Tomlinson, the co-creator and licensor of The Performance Booster Programme, says that one of the best productivity tips is to zone your time.

“Focus exclusively on specific tasks and don’t allow yourself to be distracted by things that appear urgent, but aren’t a priority,” she says. 

“We advise setting up automated email responses that outline specific times when you answer emails. This way, no one thinks you’re ignoring them, and they know when they can expect a reply. It’s important for this to become a company policy though: It can create internal conflict if one department is expecting an answer to an urgent mail and feels they are being ‘ignored’.

Related: 3 Factors that can make or break your productivity

"The world won’t end if an email remains unanswered for two hours – it just means everyone has to plan ahead and is proactive about their time, rather than reactive. With this one simple system, productivity should skyrocket.”

Focused productivity

Other tips for both yourself and your team include:

  • Planning your day in blocks. If you set times to return calls, answer emails and address admin tasks, you’re less likely to do these when you need to focus on more important (high priority) tasks.
  • Practice improving your concentration. Focus on one task at a time, and don’t switch tasks until it’s complete.
  • Build your will power. Every time you want to check an email or switch tasks, take a deep breath until the urge passes. Stay on task.
  • Turn email alerts off. This will help you with the temptation.
  • If you find yourself multitasking, stop. Take five minutes to refocus. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. It might feel like time wasted, but it will be worth it once you’re back on task. Remember, even short breaks can focus the mind, lower stress levels and improve your concentration.
  • If something urgent interrupts what you’re doing, don’t multitask. Stop what you’re doing, and give the interruption your full attention.
  • If you find your mind wandering, mentally tell yourself what you’re doing. Be present in the task at hand.
  • Manage your interruptions and distractions.
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About the author

Nadine Todd

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