Welcome to the Positively Living Podcast. I’m your host Lisa, and I’m excited you’ve joined me, but I’m curious: Are you doing something else while listening to this podcast right now?
My guess is you might be walking or driving or perhaps doing the laundry or the dishes. Or maybe making a cup of coffee? I love that for you! Well, the coffee part…I don’t love that you have to do dishes or laundry.
But I definitely love that I can keep you company (and sometimes entertained) while you’re taking care of certain tasks. I believe that’s one of the biggest benefits of a podcast. You can chip away at your todos while still staying connected. I can join you on your errands and offer support while you’re getting things done. While I can’t fold the laundry or pick up groceries for you, I can keep you company and hopefully inspire you!
But why are those kinds of tasks the ones we combine and not writing a blog or report or an important email? That’s what we’re going to talk about today. I think the tendency would be to call all of this “multi-tasking,” and I’m going counter that it’s something different. Certain task combining can be effective, and multi-tasking is another thing entirely.
What is Multi-Tasking
Let’s start with defining (and technically debunking) multi-tasking. It’s the idea of doing two things at once, and it’s a myth because you can’t actually focus on two things at once. Now before you tell me everything you’ve done at the same time and how it’s on your resume because your boss required it, so it must be true…hear me out.
What we consider to be multitasking is really “task switching.” And you might be brilliant at it. And many employers expect it regularly, which irks me, but it’s not a battle I can fight now.
With task switching, your brain shifts from one kind of focus to another, and if you have strong executive brain functions, you can do it in such a way that it seems simultaneous. However, even if you’re quite amazing at it, frequent task-switching is inherently problematic.
The transition from one task to another involves significant cognitive effort, causing mental and physical fatigue, reduced task performance, and a loss of concentration — a phenomenon known as the switch cost effect. In other words, no matter how good you might be at it and no matter what you get done, there is still technically a loss involved. I want you to consider what that is and, as always, if it’s worth it.
Why Multi-Tasking Doesn’t Always Work
Even when we complete our tasks, switching means losing time and energy. I reference this in Episode 174 on why multi-passionates need a unique productivity strategy. That’s because MPs have even more tasks to do, so the tendency to try to multi-task and to have that loss can be even greater. I mentioned psychologist David Meyer and his claim you can lose 40% of your productivity from switching a task just once.
That’s a big number, and many theories are at play, but the key here is to think about why you have this drop. There is the preparation delay–what you have to prepare for the needed for the next task and the fact that we can still be “stuck” in the prior task. Here’s the major concern, though.
It’s not just loss of time, which has been averaged to around 20 minutes each time you switch a task (for those doing math at home, that’s an hour loss for 3 task shifts).
You pay in other ways with the switch cost effect:
Reduces work quality – more switches potentially mean more mistakes
Impacts memory and retention – when our attention is disrupted, it can impair our brain’s ability to encode, meaning we can struggle with memory
Stops the flow state – the flow state is the most productive state we can be in, so anything that stops it, stops productivity.
Elicits decision fatigue – The cognitive drain that comes from switching can make it harder for us to make decisions
Even if these things are minimal, they are still a loss and add up over time. And again, what I want you to reconsider today is how that’s affecting you and your energy overall. It’s a classic case of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”.
An Alternative to Multi-Tasking
So what alternative do you have? I’m so glad you asked. Here’s my suggestion and you’re already likely doing it as we speak so I want you to lean into it.
I call it Strategic task combining. Is this multitasking? I say not really. Is it doing two things simultaneously? Yes, but the FOCUS is the key here. We’re using low-focus combinations in the same time block. If multi-tasking is something you want to claim, I’d say this is as close as possible to doing it, while keeping you the most focused and accurate you be. And that’s a win-win.
In many cases, those who would recommend multi-tasking would suggest that you group similar tasks. That’s actually called batch tasking or processing, and while that’s a recommended productivity technique, I would not suggest it for task combining.
For example, if you had to write blog posts, you would want to batch that around the same time.
This would allow you to have the same tools needed and your brain focused on writing for a specific platform. However, writing two blog posts at the same time is not necessarily efficient.
If they have similar topics, you could possibly combine researching for them and separating notes. Splitting your time between the articles is not as efficient as completing one and moving on to the next.
Task combining is different. And the tasks must be different.
This is where you take low-focus tasks that either don’t need focus due to their nature or because you’ve habituated them so your brain considers them automatic. Low-focus tasks include showering, laundry, washing dishes and cooking your favorite foods, cleaning, different workouts, stretches, walking, and gardening such as weeding or mowing the lawn.
Low-focus tasks could include updating a command center or whiteboard with information to be displayed or reviewing and labeling information in an email or task management software. Something simple enough that there’s not much thought involved. I’m sure you can think of your examples. These are the tasks you have repeated so many times you hardly have to think about them.
To be clear, these are also the ones you can do successfully and without mistakes. You want to be careful with the ones that need quality control. Mindless-type tasks are a wonderful thing as long as the outcome is successful. And in some cases, the outcome isn’t as important.
Examples of Task-Combining
Now that you’ve identified the low-focus tasks consider tasks that can combine with them, such as listening to an audiobook, a podcast, or voice mail. You could listen to voice mail or phone a friend if that’s your thing. Or perhaps you could be taking notes and working through some ideation. This is where tech comes in handy since most situations require hands-off tasks like listening and speaking.
You can leverage technology further by using apps that read a text for you or even using AI to summarize tasks, articles, or meetings. Of course, you’ll want to be cautious of accuracy. But most of the time, you can get what needs to be done. It can be good enough, and that’s great!
Another example of strategic task combining you may have seen is the walk pad under the desk. First, offices were trying to be more ergonomic with their seating, with better chairs and bouncy balls, and then came the standing desks. Now you can work while walking!
Another piece of tech that helps us with strategic task combining is the AI in many rooms in our house. In order not to accidentally wake yours or mine, I use a nickname for mine and call her Alejandra.
You can use her (or Google or whatever you have on hand) as an assistant to create lists, to hear the weather, or to check on the status of a package, all while packing, showering, or baking cookies.
Because we have technology that travels with us, we can do many of the same things–making lists and checking on things–in the car as well. Again, I want to caution you to be safe.
There are many ways to maximize the precious time you have, and I encourage you to mix and match activities that fit well for you. Try tasks you could “do in your sleep” as ones you could combine. Start with those and keep it simple.
A word of caution, though. Even in the best combination of these tasks, like driving and listening to a podcast, you’ll find yourself shifting focus at times. This is why you shut off the radio when there is traffic. Or sometimes you’re listening, and you’re inspired, and you want to write it down.
So please be mindful and be safe. Also, pay attention to the quality. If you find it dipping, you might want to change things up and do different combinations.
Strategic task combining is not a foolproof technique, but it is still far superior to task switching.
Try it out and tell me what you think. You can reach me on my Connect page of the website.https://positivelyproductive.com/connect/