Forget multitasking…

Monotasking is the EA’s secret to getting more done faster, writes Dr. Jenny Brockis

Have you noticed how, despite knowing we’re much more effective when doing one thing at a time, we’ve become conditioned to do the opposite? EAs multitask because they believe they can; that there’re good at it and that it’ll save time and energy. It’s just a pity this is an illusion…
Of course, a very tiny number of so-called ‘supertaskers’ do exist but, for the rest of us mere mortals, multitasking is a cognitive disaster, reducing our productivity by up to 40 per cent.
One reason we persist is because the brain finds the activity rewarding. Crossing another item off the never-ending executive assistant’s to-do list makes you feel good, leading to the increased release of the neurochemical dopamine, which is part of our brain’s reward circuitry. This sets up an addictive feedback loop, motivating us to keep repeating the behaviour while fooling us into believing we’re being more productive.

The terrible cognitive cost
Multi-tasking makes us tired; it causes us to make more mistakes, it reduces creativity and diminishes learning – and we take up to 50 per cent longer to complete tasks. In other words, we become less efficient, less effective and overall performance drops.
Focused attention consumes a lot of mental energy, rapidly depleting our supply of oxygenated glucose. Working too hard for too long without a break is mentally exhausting and leads to higher stress levels that aren’t good for mental health, short-tem memory or cognition.
Worse still, studies show that those who multitask the most perform the worst, fragmenting their attention to the level where they find it difficult to pay good attention to a single task – not good for a busy EA. It’s the one brain function that gets worse with practice.
While we complain about distractions, such as email, phone calls, people and meetings, we interrupt ourselves almost 50 per cent of the time with our own thoughts. Fragmenting our attention this way reduces our attention span and increases our tendency to self-interrupt by constantly checking email and social media.

EA guide to monotasking

  • Prioritise then complete each task sequentially.
  • Reduce distractions by closing the door, switching off the phone (or turning it to silent) and working with only one screen open at a time.
  • Block your day into short chunks of uninterrupted time. You can determine the length (25 to 45 minutes works well) and use a timer if needed. Working to a deadline also helps to maintain focus and boost productivity.
  • Give your brain a break of 15 to 20 minutes several times a day. This is the time to attend to admin tasks that don’t require much cognitive input and have a stretch, grab a coffee, take a power nap or meditate. Far from wasting time, this lets your brain restore energy for the next chunk of focused work and power you through your day.
  • Resist the temptation to keep checking. It’s hard, but practice is everything. Being naturally curious and suffering from FOMO (fear of missing out) is driving us to stay connected 24/7.
  • Set boundaries to switch off from technology at the end of the day, over the weekend and at least 90 minutes before bedtime.

Can you shift workplace culture?
Yes – lead by example. If you always put your phone out of sight in a meeting, take technologybreaks and dedicate your undivided attention to important items and people, your boss and others will follow.
Practising at home helps too, so take time out to read a book or do something creative without interruption. Staying fully focused and up to speed with what’s important starts with using our brains in the way they were designed – it’s time to ditch multitasking, and choose monotasking.

THE EXPERT Dr. Jenny Brockis
Dr. Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner specialising in brain health and mental performance in the workplace. She is also the author of Future Brain: The 12 Keys To Creating Your Own High- Performance Brain.