Did you know multitasking can reduce your productivity by as much as 40 percent?

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Think you’re good at multitasking? Feeling energized that you can whip through email messages while simultaneously listening to discussions on a conference call? You might not be as efficient as you think.

It turns out that 98 percent of the population doesn’t multitask very well. Only about 2 percent are good at multitasking and these “supertaskers are true outliers.” For most of us, we’re not really multitasking — we’re actually shifting back and forth from one task to another, such as typing an email and then listening to that conference call conversation, then back to our email and so on.

The problem with trying to multitask is all that shifting back and forth between tasks isn’t all that efficient because, each time we do it, it takes our brain some time to refocus. So while it might seem efficient on the surface, it isn’t — studies show that multitasking can reduce productivity by as much as 40 percent.

One of my clients, a new manager in the Seattle tech industry, had been experiencing the pitfalls of multitasking whenever his team was in meetings. “It’s bizarre to watch,” he told me. “During meetings almost every person is typing away on their laptop and then checking their cellphone, all while trying to participate in the discussions.”

“And how well is that working?” I asked with a straight face.

He laughed and shook his head. “Not very well at all. There always seems to be a time lag because the group has to disengage from what they’re doing and catch up to the conversation. I end up repeating myself many times during meetings and even backtracking over what we already covered because they weren’t paying attention to the discussion.

“What I could really use are tips on ways to get my new team focused on the meeting,” he said. “What do you recommend?”

Shifting ingrained habits from multitasking to “single tasking” isn’t an easy thing to do, but it can be helpful if you act as a role model and gain buy-in from the team members. Here’s how.

Model the behavior you want to see. Give others your full attention. That’s right. Stop what you’re doing and show respect by focusing on the person or the meeting. At the beginning of meetings, make a little show out of shutting your laptop and placing your phone face down on the table (in silent mode, of course).

Change how meetings are run. Ask your team to create boundaries for meetings, such as laptops closed, no checking phones, everyone participates, each person is asked to voice their opinion at the end of a discussion, etc. Ask the group to test the meeting boundaries for a few weeks and then share any changes they noticed (ideally, increased interaction, less stress and more fun!).

Lisa Quast, columnist for The Seattle Times Jobs
Lisa Quast, columnist for The Seattle Times Jobs

Encourage a “be here now” culture. This doesn’t mean you need to hold meditation or yoga sessions in the office. It can be as easy as using this simple technique to encourage mindfulness at the start of meetings: Ask everyone to stop what they’re doing and close their eyes. Have them take a deep breath and hold it for a count of five. Then tell them to slowly release their breath along with all stress and worries. Do this three times.

And just think, by switching from multitasking to single-tasking you might even increase your (and your team’s) productivity by 40 percent.

Lisa Quast is a certified executive coach, and the author of the book Secrets of a Hiring Manager Turned Career Coach. Email her at lquast@careerwomaninc.com.