First things first: if you can avoid multitasking, definitely do so. Trying to concentrate on more than one thing at a time is a recipe for mistakes, not to mention stress. Plus, most of us can’t really split focus like that anyway; research has shown that the most effective way to get stuff done is to do one thing well, and then move on to the next.
Of course, your boss might not care much about what the research says. Your boss might want you to pull a rabbit out of your hat … or perhaps an entire family of rabbits, from multiple hats, without the benefit of a lovely assistant to help you out.
When you’re forced to do two things at once, these tips can save your productivity:
Switch Between Projects
If you’re stuck task-switching (which, again, is what multitasking actually means for most of us), commit to it and really switch tasks. That means making an effort to work on one thing at a time, even if you can only do it for an hour or so before changing projects.
Try to stick to longer blocks of time, if possible. Constantly moving back and forth between unrelated tasks can cost up to 40 percent of your productivity over the course of the day.
Switching between tasks can cost up to 40% of your productivity over the course of the day.
Can’t block off an hour or more to work on a single project? Look for related tasks and work on them during the same period of time. For instance, you might answer all your pending emails during the same block, or review upcoming deadlines against your calendar. Keeping your focus on the same type of activity makes it easier to concentrate and make progress.
Don’t Forget About the Big Picture
It’s easy to get so caught up in the details that you forget to take a step back and look at your goals in context.
“Focusing narrowly on a given day’s work puts you in a reactive, firefighting mode,” write Heidi K. Gardner and Mark Mortensen at Harvard Business Review. “Schedule a regular status check on all your projects to note milestones. By proactively identifying crunch times when multiple projects have high demands, you can better manage your time and set expectations.”
Be Realistic About Requirements
How many hours do you need for each stage of Project A and Project B? What resources do you need? Which stakeholders need to sign off at which point, in order to make things happen?
Devote some time to figuring out what each project and task requires, and you won’t wind up putting in unexpected overtime down the road. You’ll also be able to show your boss concrete evidence that you’re overcommitted and under-resourced, instead of making your case based on gut feelings … or waiting for burnout to set in.
Tell Us What You Think
Are you an expert multitasker? Share your wisdom in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.