That’s the number of tabs I have open on my laptop right now.
And 11. The number of files I have open.
Unknown — probably in the hundreds — the number of times I’ve switched from one thing to another just during the course of this day.
The average person working on a computer changes applications or windows, checking email and other programs, nearly 37 times an hour.
Here’s my confession: I’m a trying-to-be-reformed multitasker. I learned that in my almost 29 years at a company where management and supervisors also had projects they were responsible for. Imagine having to write reports and presentations while being available to 40 internal employees and two vendors with over 400 of their own employees supporting your operation… I thought I had to get really good at multitasking to get all that done.
I know it isn’t as efficient and I definitely know it isn’t as effective. But it’s a bad habit I just can’t seem to break. And I’ve tried. But I didn’t realize just how much it was costing me…
Until I read our B2B Writing Success February Book Club selection: The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results.
Author Gary Keller, co-founder of Keller Williams Realty International, considers his ONE thing to be teaching.
As he teaches readers strategies for getting extraordinary results in life, he defines a set of beliefs we get fixed in our heads that just aren’t helpful for our success.
Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Multitasking is #2 of the “six lies between you and success” as defined by Keller.
Most people really do believe, despite the scientific certainty that the belief is false, they’re more efficient and effective when they multitask.
Keller calls these lies operational principles that drive us the wrong way — we’re chasing fool’s gold while missing the mother lode.
Why do we believe the lie?
Look at any high-performer’s resume — multitasking will almost definitely be on it. It’s been on mine for years.
Not only do multitaskers believe they’re good at it — they convince the people around them they are too. The lie is so prevalent, recruiters look at it as a coveted “skill.”
There’s no shortage of advice on websites about how to multitask. Even when a site “admits” most people aren’t good at multitasking, they still promote ideas like “but these six strategies for multitasking really do work.”
You see, people get confused because yes, you probably can walk and chew gum at the same time. However, you can’t (effectively) have a debate with the person in your passenger seat and still have your full attention on driving the car. You may think you do — but study after study has proven… you don’t.
The difference between the two scenarios? The quality of your gum-chewing won’t suffer greatly if you’re not focused on it, but the quality of your driving definitely will.
What are we really doing when we think we’re effectively multitasking?
When we tout our ability to multitask, what we’re really touting is our ability to task switch. And task switching comes with a cost. It might only be a few seconds, but add those up across all the times you’ve stopped working when your phone beeped to check out the email that just came in… or clicked over to Facebook to see how many Likes your latest post has accumulated… or even answered your child’s question about what’s for dinner.
You turn back to your original task and you have to take a second to reorient yourself to where you were before you can continue.
According to Keller, researchers have determined we lose 28% of an average workday to multitasking productivity loss.
Think about that: if you’re working an eight-hour day, you’ve lost 2 hours and 15 minutes — and you probably thought you were getting more done by multitasking!
Your brain can certainly do more than one thing at a time, because it puts each thing in a different part of your brain for attention. But… and this is a big but… only one thing can be in your prefrontal cortex at a time.
And whatever is in that prefrontal cortex is what you’re focusing on right now. The other thing you’re trying to do is in some other brain channel and isn’t being effectively tended to.
The impact of this bad habit on your writing business
When you’re scheduling work, you’re usually looking at how long it takes you to complete certain tasks. You can only fit so much work into a day or a week.
So, if you’re a chronic multitasker, losing up to 2 hours and 15 minutes a day, it’s going to seem like that article or blog takes hours to research and write.
How much might that lost time work out to in terms of lost income? If you’re charging roughly $100/hour, which is a “normal” experienced copywriting rate, you’ve potentially turned down over $200 a day in work you didn’t realize you had time for.
Over a month’s time, that’s close to $4,000. Could you use an extra $4,000 a month?
On top of that, chronic multitaskers tend to make more mistakes because their decision-making skills are diminished. They’ve fractured their focus.
Finally, multitaskers are more stressed, reducing their happiness, but also their creativity. So the work you do turn in might not be as high-quality as you’re capable of, hurting both you and your client.
We would be horrified if our dentist was multitasking while filling a cavity or pulling a tooth, wouldn’t we? Why would we treat our writing any differently?
So… what do we do?
Get more copywriting done more quickly
The first thing I’d recommend is for you to read Gary Keller’s book, if you haven’t done so already. B2B Writing Success members have — and I’m confident they’re kicking the multitasking lie to the curb — as well as ditching their belief in the other five lies.
Stephen King also has some great advice in his book On Writing about how he is able to focus and turn out so much work. That was a B2B Writing Success Book Club book in 2020.
But until you have a chance to read either of those books, one of these techniques can help you start to loosen multitasking’s grip on your day and your income.
The Pomodoro Technique
You’ve likely heard of this, but if you’re not using it, you have not internalized the benefits you can enjoy. A university student, Francesco Cirillo, was frustrated at his inability to focus on his studies. So, he found a tomato-shaped timer and set it for 10 minutes and set out to study for just those 10 minutes.
The way the evolved technique works, whether you’re using your phone (I don’t recommend this because of the next suggestion you’ll read), a Pomodoro website timer, or a physical tomato timer, is you set the timer for 25 minutes. You put your head down and do nothing else for those 25 minutes.
Take a five-minute break. Then start on your second 25-minute Pomodoro, with another five-minute break at the end of that. Do four of these in a row, then take a longer break.
If you add this up, you’ll have “lost” only 10 minutes per hour for the 2 hours you’re following this technique. You’ll have reduced your hourly distractions from 37 to 2. Compared to the loss from multitasking… you’ve cut your lost time in half.
And you’ve likely created higher-quality work with fewer mistakes.
Chuck your iPhone into the lake… well, at least put it in another room
Even if you’ve turned off all the beeps and blips from emails, tweets, Facebook posts, etc., just having your phone within arm’s reach creates temptation.
Temptation that will take willpower to resist.
Who needs that? We all have a finite amount of willpower. Don’t use it up trying to stay off your phone so you can focus on work. Just put the phone somewhere else. You can use your five-minute break between Pomodoros to go to the other room to check it if you want. Just don’t have it handy while you’re working.
Create browser groupings
My son showed me this one. While you’re working on one client’s project, create a set of tabs you need for that industry or that project type, and only have those tabs open.
Put your email, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other tabs on a separate browser group… and keep that closed while you’re in the middle of working on the project.
I have folders for each client, with a set of URLs I use for that client. When I pull up Google Chrome, I choose the browser setup that has that client’s relevant URLs on it and leave the other windows closed.
I’m sure you have other ways to minimize distractions and multitasking like only checking email once a day or taking social media off your phone, so feel free to share them in the Comments. I would love to hear other thoughts, since I’m a still-recovering multitasker and could use some inspiration!