Multi-tasking is not being more efficient

One of the main challenges for new faculty staff is to adapt to multi-tasking. PhDs and post-docs mostly work on an individual project, sometimes helping a graduate student with their project but most of the time they work on getting deliverables done for their research project.

A new faculty staff needs to supervise many undergraduate and graduate students, they need to teach and respond to many teaching-related administrative tasks, they need to develop new collaborations, or participate in the writing of several publications at the same time, or hold many meetings of different nature during the day, etc… The necessity to develop multi-tasking skills can be overwhelming. When I have back-to-back meetings, it does require some special effort for my brain to switch from one topic to another and be fully engaged.

However, there is another form of multi-tasking that prevents you from focusing on the tasks that matter. It seems that it has now become more common to do two things at the same time: for example, checking your email while you are in a meeting, or managing your social media account while you listen to a talk at a conference.

By doing two things at the same time, you think that you are twice effective. Yet, research shows that this is not the case at all. By engaging in two activities, you are not focused on any of them, and you will not do them as effectively as you would if you focus on just one of them.

Even if you do one thing at a time, distractions can still interrupt your flow. This happens when you let your email browser open and get email notifications, or when you receive notifications on your phone. Each notification is a trigger to distract you from what you are doing.


Would it not be so easy then to turn off all notifications? Unfortunately, it is not! Every notification triggers the release of dopamine in our brain. Dopamine is the manifestation of desire. Our desire to know who has written to us, our desire to see who has engaged with us, our desire to complete a task easily. From those notifications we get a sense of reward for accomplishing a task. Yet, this task in most cases is not on our priority list, and in any case, it suddenly takes us away from the task we were focusing.

Be focused-tasking

Thus, I think that it is more productive to be focused-tasking. Focused-tasking consists in planning your tasks for the day and executing them one at a time. You are still multi-tasking throughout the day by working on many different topics, but you schedule your multi-tasking and stay focus on one task at a time.

Your distractions become scheduled tasks like responding to emails from 1pm to 2pm for example, or checking your Twitter account during 10 min at lunch time, etc… By doing this, you will be able to focus on your priority tasks instead of the urgent tasks. You can then focus on the difficult tasks instead of easy ones like emails which produce an immediate sense of gratification. Being able to delay gratification is a well-known skill for success.

Focused-tasking can lead to flow when motivation, concentration and focus on a given task makes the process enjoyable and timeless (my example of deepest flow at work is mostly when I was doing my PhD which was actually mainly mono-tasking!). It is therefore favourable to practice focused-tasking as much possible and be as consistent as possible. 

In order to keep being focused on a given task, it is best to avoid any distraction. First, planning your tasks is critical. If you have a tight schedule in which each task of the day is clearly indicated (whether it is a meeting with someone, or a review to make, or a class to prepare, or responding to emails, etc…), then it is much easier to stick to what your agenda says.

So being able to plan in advance all your tasks and estimate properly the amount of time they will take will help you delivering them consistently. That also means that when you are at your computer, you should just use it for one thing. Close your email app, your internet browser or any other application that you don’t need to execute the task. It may also mean for you to be in an environment where you can be quiet or where you are sure that nobody or nothing will interrupt you.


Avoid the chatter

Your internal voice might still want to distract you. You think about the discussion you had in the meeting prior, you think about the argument you had with your child in the morning, you wonder how you will present your ideas in the important meeting you have in the afternoon, etc… You need to remove all the chatter in your head and just focus on what needs to be done in the present. For this, you need to be intentional about the task that you do, that is you must see this task as your priority in the next 30 or 60 minutes.

Practicing being in the present and not worrying about the past or the future can help to remove the chatter. This is where a daily practice of meditation can bring you a long way and be more present on the day-to-day basis. It all sounds much easier than it is in reality.

Removing all distractions is extremely difficult and this is a goal that I am still striving for. But I really believe that with some perseverance, practice, and awareness, it is achievable by anyone, and the end results will lead you to a much more effortless and enjoyable productive output.

Let me know if this is something that you have already tried and whether you’ve had any success at it.


Get on our email list

We will send you an article every month on academic related topic and how to manage your academic career.


And receive a free document on "How to lead your group remotely" when you register.

Thank you for registering to Success in Academia newsletter. Please check you email for a welcome message and check your spam folder if you have not received it in your inbox.