The Multitasking Myth: How To Be More Productive
Multitasking has become a common topic of discussion over the past year, as workers shift to a work-from-home arrangement as the world battles the coronavirus pandemic.
But just how effective is it? Does it really help us become more productive?
Not according to Dave Crenshaw.
Dave is the author of the book The Myth of Multitasking: How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing Done, in which he provides a solution to the chaos of distraction that multitasking can create.
He joins us in this episode of Start Yours to break down what actually happens when we multitask as well as provide game-changing time-management tips about how we can be more productive as we work from home.
Finding yourself constantly distracted and stressed about your never-ending to-do lists? This is one episode you do not want to miss.
If you're enjoying our podcasts, don't forget to subscribe.
Prefer a summary? Here's a seven-point version of our conversation with Dave.
- If you try to do multiple things concurrently, you're really just switching rapidly back and forth instead of doing both.
- Every time you switch attention, things end up taking longer to do, you make more mistakes, your stress levels increase, and you're communicating to people you're dealing with that they're not important.
- You should be asking, "How long can this wait?" instead of, "Can I get this done in the next week?"
- As an entrepreneur, you should leave around 30 to 40 percent of your day open to interruptions.
- Schedule the most amount of time during the period you're least likely to get interrupted to do your most valuable activities.
- On average, workers check their emails and messages every six minutes.
- A to-do list is the absence of control. Switch it out for a calendar instead.
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What Happens When You Switch Attention
Aleisha: Dave Crenshaw, thank you so much for joining us on Start Yours. You are a productivity expert. I have so much to learn from you. I know that a lot of people out there might be struggling with what to do, multitasking, and how to get stuff done. And you are the man to answer all the questions. So, thank you for joining us.
Dave: Oh, glad to be here, Aleisha.
Aleisha: Dave, it's been a really tricky – this is an understatement – past year. We are into a new year now, and a lot of people are finding themselves working from home. Remote work life has become the norm, which is pretty bizarre, but it was so great for some people.
Talk to me a little bit about how your perspective of remote working and also multitasking and productivity has evolved over the last year or so.
Dave: Sure. Well, first of all, I'm someone who has worked from home for over 20 years, so it's not unfamiliar territory for me. I've been helping people, especially entrepreneurs, people who use your product, be successful and be focused.
And the biggest challenge prior to this is really the same challenge that we have now. It's just amplified, which is switches of attention.
In my book, The Myth of Multitasking, I talk about how multitasking the way most people think about it honestly doesn't exist. What is happening is switch tasking, meaning your attention… If you try to do multiple things at the same time, like listen to this podcast while typing an email, you're not really doing both. You're just switching rapidly back and forth.
So, now, yeah, you put people into the work-from-home situation, and the opportunities to have your attention switch magnify. Now, we've got kids asking for attention, we've got the dog wanting us to take it outside. We've got all these different inputs.
So where I come from is we have to build a strategy, we have to create useful boundaries in our day to allow us to do our most valuable work for the most focused amount of time.
Aleisha: I'm so glad you mentioned all the distractions 'cause I know I'm recording from my lounge room. We literally have a plumber, our toilet was blocked yesterday, we've got a plumber, a lovely plumber who's doing some work in the next room. The kids are here, everyone's running around, and I really enjoy all this chaos.
But also, my attention span has, I think, reduced and I'm very quick to jump up and say, "I'll help do this, I'll do this." And although I'm a hard worker, my employers, if they're listening, it does feel that I struggle to maintain that focus as I used to do in, probably, an office environment.
Yet, as a caveat, I will say, I know in an office environment I was getting up and socializing a lot more than I do at home, especially when there's no one here and the activity isn't happening. So, in a way, I was thinking about it the other day, that there were other distractions in an office that were different from the home distractions, but we're always being distracted ultimately in the workplace.
Dave: Right. And much of it is our own doing.
Dave: Ideas that pop into our head, those can distract us. Just really anything, notifications, the emails coming in, text messages coming in, there are so many different ways that we can get distracted. And so we have to say, look, when this happens, we're paying a cost.
I talk about how when you switch, there's a switching cost to be paid, and there are four things that happen whenever your attention switches. Well, three main effects, and the fourth one depends on if someone's involved.
So, the first one, things take longer. So anything that you're attempting to do whenever you switch out of it to something else, and then switch back, you're dramatically increasing how long it takes to complete something.
Number two, you make more mistakes. In fact, there was a study that was done by Michigan State University here in the States, that found that it took just 2.8 seconds of interruption to double the number of mistakes that you make, double the likelihood of you making a mistake.
Aleisha: Oh, my goodness. That's crazy.
Dave: Yeah, number three, your stress levels increase. So, you think about what it's like to try and focus on something, and then one extra input comes in. One child asks for attention, one other person sends a text message, and you can feel that stress just well up inside.
And then the fourth, if there's a human being involved, if you switch tasks on them, if you don't give them 100 percent of your attention, you're communicating to them that they're not important. You're communicating they're less important than whatever it is you happen to be doing on your phone at the time.
Aleisha: That is a common... And I would say outside of work, even in relationships, I know if my partner is texting and I'm like blah, blah, blah, blah, talking, and then he doesn't look up when he's texting and I get a bit shirty. We've discussed this and he's like, "I'm just focusing on returning this message, and then I'll have a chat with you, and then I can give you my attention."
And I need to as a person, a human, understand that we don't have to be multitasking all the time. But my expectations are, "Hey, you should stop doing your text messages and listen to me," which I don't think is very fair.
But also it seems to be where we're at as a society, that we're being told, "You should be able to do all of this stuff at once," and that's okay. And if you can't, you're failing.
Dave: Right. And that's just not true. Part of the problem is we have become a culture of people who pride ourselves on being busy, as if busy is a badge of honor, but it's not. It's a white flag of surrender. It's saying that you're not efficient.
And part of the obstacle that I have to overcome, and part of what I address in my book, The Myth of Multitasking, is helping people recognize that activity is not the goal.
The goal is to achieve a result.
And if you can achieve that result in a matter of a couple of minutes, well done. We don't have to constantly be jogging and running and moving around in order to achieve the results that we want to achieve in our career, in our life, in our business.
The Culture of “When”
Aleisha: Do you think... Actually, I wanna share before I get to that. There was a tweet that I screen grabbed when I knew I was going to be chatting with you, and it's by Kenz Hadley, and she said, "Yesterday I completed a chore that I've been putting off for five months. It took me 20 minutes, I will learn nothing from this," and it's had 800,000 likes and it really made me giggle 'cause I'm like, "This is the problem."
I really wanna talk to you about your advice for how we actually get on top of this, but I know I create lists, I set a Google calendar reminder, things pop up at me all the time. And yet when they do, I feel that sense of doom and gloom and panic that you just mentioned before, and stress of going, "Oh my gosh, I've gotta do this thing."
And then often I find myself saying, "Alright, I'll just move that calendar notification to next Tuesday, and then I'll definitely do this task." But then having moved it, I feel this burden and pressure going "Alright, next Tuesday, definitely gonna do that task." And I do not do it, and I'm a doer, but it is a burden. It is a super burden.
So, how do we go about rearranging our existence to not feel that burden? And this is a big question, I know we can't solve this in 25 minutes, but at least we could kick it off...
Dave: No, but I can give some starting points, I think. I think I can do something that helps.
Aleisha: Good, that's good.
Dave: And part of it is you have to shift from the culture of “now” to the culture of “when.” The culture of “now” perpetuates this feeling like if I have to do something, I have to do it now, or it's not going to get done.
Or if I have a question for someone else, I need them to answer it now. And if they don't answer it now, I send them a text message, and if they don't answer the text then I call them, and it just...
What happens is when you live in the culture of “now” you're perpetuating switch-tasking because now you're just peppering yourself and others with all these to-dos.
And I found that the average person operates in a horizon, a time horizon of about two weeks. In other words, they think, if I can't get this done within the next two weeks, I can't do it. That is an incredibly compressed amount of time to give ourselves to accomplish significant things in our life.
Aleisha: Huge, yeah.
Dave: Yeah. So, I'm actually a fan of strategic procrastination, I preach it, I believe in it. And what that says is, if something is important, it should be done... The most important thing should be done now. And then the next most important thing should be done a day from now or two days from now.
And if something isn't important, we should push that thing off as long as we possibly can. A year, two years, whatever is reasonable.
The question you wanna ask is, "How long can this wait?" Rather than saying, "Can I get this done in the next week?"
And when you start doing that, you stop feeling that pressure to constantly perform and you start to leave open spaces in your days and in your weeks, so that when interruptions happen like... I won't go into the details but we had a major emergency happen, unexpected recently. And because I had buffer time built into my calendar, we had the room to deal with it without feeling tremendous amounts of stress.
But if you schedule your days back to back to back, and every single appointment just as tight as you possibly can, the moment something unexpected occurs, your world falls apart.
Aleisha: Yeah. Do you think... That's such a great point. 'Cause I have access... This is in our organization, I have access to other people's calendars to book meetings, and sometimes when I go into other people's calendars that look really full and colorful and beautiful, I panic a little bit 'cause I'm like, "Oh my gosh, my calendar doesn't look like that." Not that I'm not doing the work, but it's just not how my brain works.
And it sometimes makes me feel very... Well, just not great at my job when I'm looking at that, but it's nice to hear you say that, that perhaps we don't need to schedule 15 minutes of nothing time and maybe instead schedule two hours of a buffer zone as you said, and still feel like you're doing a great job.
Schedule Your Time Smarter
Dave: Yeah, it depends on your position. It depends on the role that you play. Some roles are highly prone to interruptions. For instance, if I'm in a customer service position or I'm in a business where we have to respond in an instant. Like, I've consulted auto repair companies, they have to do that.
So what I tell someone who's highly interruption-driven, you probably shouldn't schedule more than 30 percent to 40 percent of your day.
In business, that's probably more typical, I would say probably leave around 30 percent to 40 percent of your day open, that gives you breathing room for the interruptions. But then here's the beautiful thing, when they don't happen because sometimes they won't, it feels like you have bonus time. And because you're operating in an area of being less stressed, you're far more productive.
Typically, a client who's been through my training program can reclaim about one extra work week's worth of time every month.
Aleisha: Wow, that's impressive.
Dave: And it sounds like an exaggeration, but it's very true.
Aleisha: What do you think about the people... I've got a friend who's extremely intelligent, really good at his job, but he said, "You know what, if I get into the office really early in the morning before everyone arrives," and this is sort of pre-COVID times, but we were just talking about this recently, he's like, "I can get in there and I can do two hours of focus work, I can just smash it out, and then when people come into the office, then I start my day of talking and doing meetings."
But really the core part of his day is done in those first two hours. And it was great, we were talking about working from home and productivity, and I said to him, "Yeah, I sort of feel the same way. I know if I do my interviews and do my show notes and record, I can really get things done." And then you've got the rest of the day to feel like you can think and plan and be creative.
How do we get to the point where it became the norm to work eight hours and people to think we should be solidly focusing and being productive for eight hours 'cause I don't think that's humanly possible. I don't think anyone can do that. But it seems to be what everyone's saying we should be doing, which is weird.
Dave: No. And that story of your friend is really interesting because I also run into situations where people say, "My most productive time is when I'm on vacation," or, "the weekend.” And that is not necessary.
We can create a culture in the workplace, we can create a culture even with our customers that says, "Here is the time when I'm going to make myself available." Now, I'm going back to that principle of “when,” right? This is when I'm going to be available for your interruption or for you to schedule yourself into my calendar for a meeting.
Then here is the time where I'm going to do my focused work. And I talk about this in my LinkedIn Learning Time Management Training, time management fundamentals. I talk about focusing on your most valuable activities.
These are the one or two things that you do that are worth the most per hour.
Meaning if you had to hire someone else to do it, it would be the most expensive to replace. And you want to schedule out the most amount of time during the times where you're least likely to be interrupted to do those MVAs, those most valuable activities.
It is very possible to do this, but what people run into is they're so afraid of saying “no,” they're so afraid of holding the line with their boundaries that they default to letting other people interrupt them with whatever it is that they're dealing with in the moment.
Aleisha: Yeah. We've all sort of become a bit "yes" men in this situation, "yes" men and women, that is, you do feel obliged. And I think especially working from home or running small businesses where you think, "Well, I must get this opportunity, I must step up, 'cause I don't want people to think I'm not doing work."
You do sort of become a lot more... I think I've become a bit more obliging with saying, "Alright, I'll do an after-hours meeting,” or, “I'll step into the weekend to do some extra work," which normally I would probably not do.
How do we go about maybe creating better boundaries with time management, and especially then transposing into being more productive and doing better work for the people we're working for or for ourselves.
Time Management: Setting Boundaries
Dave: Sure. And I wanna say that I am a big believer in being highly responsive and in taking care of your customers and responding. The problem is, we run into a paradox, and it goes back to that first principle that I said, or the first cost of switch tasking.
When you switch, things take longer.
So sometimes when people think that they're being more responsive by allowing themselves to be interrupted or taking these meetings at odd hours, they think that they're doing things faster, when in fact they're doing things much, much slower, around 50 percent to 100 percent longer when they jump to something the moment it comes in, rather than saying, "Here's the moment when I'm going to deal with this. And when that time comes, I'm gonna give it 100 percent of my attention."
So, just from one simple example, you can ask yourself... Because one of the problems that people have is they're constantly checking email, just send and receive all the time, or maybe even worse, they get a notification on their screen, on their phone every time an email comes in.
And in fact, Rescue Time, which is a nice little app that helps people recover time, found that six minutes is how long workers on average take before checking their email or instant messages, that's ten times per hour.
Aleisha: Are you kidding?
Aleisha: That's... I feel a bit... My tummy just lurched there 'cause I'm like, "Oh my God, I'm guilty of this." But also, "Oh, that's exhausting."
Dave: And that's the average. That means there are plenty of people doing a lot worse than that. So I ask the question, consider your position, consider your industry and say, "How long can I wait?" When is the latest that I could check my email?
And let's say you... Even on the extreme end, you say, "I can't wait more than an hour." Great, then you have an appointment once an hour on the hour, maybe five minutes before the end of the hour, to check your email. That means you're only checking it eight, nine times a day instead of 50 to 60. And that is an incredible time value gain. That's where we start to reclaim that one workweek every single month.
Aleisha: Even eight to nine... Even eight to ten times a day still feels like a lot to me. But then when you said 50 times a day, oh my gosh, what are we doing to ourselves?
Dave: I'm being generous to make people feel comfortable. Honestly, I find it's best to set it up around three times per day to just check, and then I have time set for processing, which means I bring my email inbox to zero completely on Monday morning and Friday morning.
Aleisha: Well, that's a good goal. It's a great goal. A lot of our listeners are ecommerce merchants or potential small business owners, they might be wanting to leave their day jobs or just run side hustles.
If you are looking to start a side hustle, and I think this is where people become quite overwhelmed, and I have personally been in this position where you are working a day job and you are adding on with an extra project, can you give some advice about people who are starting that or who were in it and freaking out and stressed off of their nuts because they are... Don't know how to manage time.
What are some of the easy things that we could start to do to prevent us from going loco?
Dave: Yeah. I'd start with an exercise that I cover in the book called “the time budgeter.” In its simplest forms, you're just looking at the 168 hours that you have, everyone has per week. And you ask yourself the question: How much time do I want to devote to this side hustle? And how much time do I want to devote to sleep and to family and to my day job?
And you just start estimating the numbers. It has to tally up to 168 hours, you've gotta balance that budget, so to speak. And in fact, that's how I think of work-life balance. I think of it like making sure that you're living within the means that you have, not that it should be a 50 percent to 50 percent equation.
So, you say, "Alright, each week I should spend ten hours on my side hustle," just throwing out a number. Then the question becomes: When do those ten hours take place? Are they going to take place all day Saturday, are they gonna take place two hours per night on the weekdays? We start with the number and then we can work backwards and create that structure in our calendar.
The calendar is the most powerful tool that everyone has at their disposal yet few people use properly.
Aleisha: What are some tips then about using the calendar properly and actually not doing what I do and just going, "Woop, let's just move that one to next week. I'll do it next week."
Replace the To-Do List With a Calendar
Dave: Yeah. Well, the first is to replace the to-do list with the calendar. I'm a pretty big advocate against using a to-do list. And the reason is that a to-do list is the absence of control.
What I mean by that is, you're just going to add things to the list and then check them off when you have an opportunity that is allowing yourself to get blown around with whatever interruptions take place.
So, instead, we wanna take those items off the to-do list, look at the calendar objectively and say, "When is a time that I can reasonably get this done?" And "How long do I think it's going to take?" And then over-estimate. If you're not... If you don't feel like you've got a good time estimation muscle, double your estimates.
So, if you think something's gonna take half an hour, schedule an hour. And then once you start getting used to it, you can be more accurate with your guesses on the calendar. But just start allocating that time, and then when the time comes, you respect that.
And the reason that works versus a to-do list is that you budgeted the time, it's been set aside. Now, all we have to deal with is the psychological mental games that you might be playing with yourself to encourage procrastination. But honestly, those are pretty easy to solve, what's a lot harder to solve is when you just haven't given yourself the time to do it.
Aleisha: Yeah, I'm taking on this on board and I'm gonna do this, this is gonna be my 2021 goal.
Aleisha: 'Cause I'm the queen of procrastination, in a lot of ways, but then I put my head down and I really get things done. But also, the procrastination does have a bit of a shame cycle of me thinking, "Oh, I should have done that." And then when I go to relax and I think, "I should be relaxing more." And then when I relax, I worry about all the things that I didn't do.
So, I'm going to be very proactive, 'cause then it ruins relaxing time, it's like, "Oh what? I can't win because I'm going around and around in circles." So this is inspiring me to be a lot better with my scheduling, but also not feeling the guilt when I'm relaxing.
And that's a weird thing to feel when we're... I suppose a lot of us having been in our homes for the last 12 months and not going out and doing things. It can be hard to separate relaxing and working time now, 'cause it's all just blending into one big blob of time. How do we fix that?
Dave: Yeah. And your brain is okay with giving you permission to relax as long as it's confident that the schedule you've created is going to work.
When you give your brain a “when,” your brain gives you permission to wait until that time arrives.
Separating Work From Home in One Physical Space
Aleisha: So, looking at our workspace, especially at home, and whether you are working for someone else or yourself, how can we set up a working physical space to help us with productivity and also be able to maybe separate the workspace and then also our home life, where we can relax and put the TV on or go and do all these other tasks that can be distracting in a workday, and instead actually just focus, get stuff done, and then enjoy the relaxing time?
Dave: So, I like to think of the workspace in terms of the five senses. So, you start with sight. What is it that you see, is there anything that's visually distracting? What do you hear? Are there ways that we can minimize the noise?
For instance, one person was being distracted by the noise of their family outside of their office. So we just implemented white noise, just a fan. Touch, you take a look at the ergonomics. Are there things that you're doing that are causing you to be uncomfortable and shift your position too much?
Let's see, I've got taste. So that means that you've got snacks that are handy, close at hand, and also snacks that give you energy rather than causing you to switch your attention away because you're feeling run down.
And then this is always a fun one, but sometimes it'll crop up: smell. Are there any phantom smells that are occurring? Sometimes you stop and hesitate… Usually, that's not a big one, but it's something to consider. It's just kind of a fun way to analyze your workspace and see: How can I reduce distractions here?
Aleisha: That's great. Well, I'm going to reassess I'm trying to re-do my home office a little bit, and I'm going to definitely take into consideration some of those things. The snack idea is great 'cause I'm really good at getting up and going to the kitchen and making a coffee, da da da da. Then I'm like, "Oh, this has been 25 minutes, where has that gone?"
But you're right, if you've got it there, it stops that getting up. But also it's good to get up and walk around, just do it with purpose, schedule it in.
Dave: Well, and that's a good place to kind of wrap up, I think, which is, there is value in taking breaks. And in fact, I have a whole other book that just talks about that, the power of having fun and taking a ten- to 20-minute break, perhaps every 90 minutes or so is really valuable.
But we go back to that principle of doing it on the calendar, having a clear “when,” and committing to that break and using it rather than trying to squeeze it in after you get your work done. That's not going to be productive in the long run.
Aleisha: No and your back and body will say, "Thank you so much for letting me get up and walk around and not be a weird old crooked back person," like I can be when I just sit for seven hours and then go, "Why haven't I gotten up? Why haven't I moved? What's going on?"
Dave Crenshaw, you're a delight, and I feel motivated to do better this year when it comes to multitasking and also you've inspired me. I just counted, I've got like 28 tabs open on my freaking computer and I'm going to fix that now and we didn't even get to that, but I just needed to... Like going to confession. I just needed to confess to you, I'm gonna improve, I do not need those tabs.
Dave: Know your weight, no more.
Aleisha: Exactly. Dave’s The Myth of Multitasking: How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing Done is out now, and I'm sure people can purchase that via Amazon or their bookshops, support some local bookshops, let's do that as well.
And if people wanna get in touch, also, you've got some amazing courses as you said, where can we learn more about what you do?
Dave: Well, my website is davecrenshaw.com. Crenshaw is C-R-E-N-S-H-A-W. And I mentioned my time management course, if you go to davecrenshaw.com/time, that'll take you right to that course on LinkedIn Learning. And usually, they have a free trial.
Aleisha: That's fantastic. Well, thank you so much for sharing your insights. I know people will leave feeling good and clearing their big silly task list that is not helping them at all. So thanks again, and I hope we can talk again soon.
Dave: Thank you, Aleisha.