overcoming digital distractions and why multi-tasking is for losers.

Picture of man driving while drinking coffee and texting on his mobile phone. Caption reads: Multitasking - because we needed another word for As I type this blog post, I have half an eye on the telly and periodically flick to my Twitter notifications because, obviously, it’s important.

And, anyway, it’s a given, in our technology-dominated culture, that we should be able to manage the competing distractions of social media, email, cat videos on the Internet (not to mention the actual, real life ‘distractions’ of friends and family), while meeting our deadlines, completing our projects and, obviously, finishing up that next killer paper. In fact, I’d bet a Jaffa Cake (so you know I mean business) that every job description I’ve seen in the last few years has highlighted the need to be able to multitask. But, recently, I’ve started to think that, actually, multi-tasking might be for losers. Or, at least, that it might not be the panacea for all our productivity woes that we’ve been led to believe.I know some people who are genuinely excellent at multi-tasking. About five people. I know way more people who feel that they should be good at it, when, really, there’s increasing evidence that multi-tasking and task-switching negatively affect performance and are even linked to differences in brain structure. Yikes.

Added to this, there’s the unfortunate tendency to call things multi-tasking that might better be termed “messing about on the Internet.” I’m totally guilty of this, and it almost always starts with the very best of intentions. I post something work-related and worthy on Twitter, then spot a work-relevant link from the Times Higher and…boom! It’s all useful and interesting stuff, but it can be tricky to see how it’s actually contributing to planning my workshop or finishing my article.

Recently, I’ve become a bit more proactive in dealing with these digital distractions and time sinks; I turn my email off when I have something meaty to do and, even better, I’ve found a useful little tool that acts as a substitute for willpower when I have a particularly irritating piece of work to knock out. StayFocusd is one of number of website-blocking apps that aim to keep you (me) on the straight and narrow. You can limit the time you spend on time-wasting websites, or block your access entirely. It can be quite eye-opening to discover how much time you do spend on various ‘useful’ websites, when you’re sure that you’ve been terribly busy all day!

To be honest, I don’t really think that multi-tasking is for losers; but I do believe that the ability to focus completely on one task is just as – if not more – important, particularly in a research context.

What do you think? What works for you? Let us know!

Photo credit here


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