Our ability to focus for a significant length can be crucial to our ability in completing important and urgent tasks, yet most of us operate in very distracting environments. Not all distractions originate outside our brain, however. Surprisingly enough, one of the most common ways we self-sabotage our productivity is by multi-tasking.

We’ve all seen the job ads that require prospective candidates to “be able to multi-task”. Essentially, multi-tasking is carrying out two or more tasks at the same time. This gives the illusion that we are saving time and able to carry out the multiple tasks faster than if we were to carry them out sequentially.

However, what our brains are doing when we are multi-tasking is in fact close to multi-switching between the different tasks at hand. Some might argue that there is hardly any difference between multi-tasking and multi-switching, and in many cases, they are probably right. However, although our brains are very capable of switching from one task to another, this switching always comes at a cost, a cognitive cost in fact – focus.

Take driving as an example; although I’m pretty sure all of us carry out several (sometimes illegal) tasks while we are driving, such as daydreaming, planning, phone calls, listening to music/audio books/radio etc, when we do so we momentarily switch off our focus on our driving. Now in most driving situations this will not be a problem, but should a car suddenly swerve into our lane with no warning, the result could be disastrous.

Similarly, while switching from one task to another at work might work and actually be fun, as soon as we need to get something done that requires our full attention due to its importance or urgency, the best advice I can give you is to focus on that specific task before you move on to the next one. This not only helps you become more productive but is likely to reduce the stress of juggling too many things.

Here are four tips to help you limit your multi-tasking at work:

1. Tell people around you not to disturb you

If you’ve got a door to your office, shut the door and put up a ‘do not disturb until…’ sign where it can be seen. Otherwise, just tell the people who are likely to disturb you that you are unavailable for a specific time or find a way to show you are not to be disturbed such as putting on headphones (with or without music).

2. Turn off those notifications

Most of our interruptions and distractions nowadays come from our phones, smart devices, and computers. Ideally, switch your phone off completely or silence it. Same thing goes for your computer; switch off all notifications (email, instant messaging etc).

3. Time-box your task

Estimate how much time you realistically have to complete the task. This is not equal to the amount of time you would like to have to complete the task. Once you set that deadline, set an alarm and commit to finish the task by the deadline no matter what.

4. Schedule a five minute break every 25 minutes if the task is longer than an hour

This is known as the Pomodoro Technique, a time management system that encourages people to work with the time they have—rather than against it. It helps you focus for short, sharp periods of time and discourages multi-tasking as a means of tackling an overwhelming task.

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