How to save your productivity and not die trying

In a heroic attempt to be the superhero of productivity, I was caught in a whirlwind of emails, meetings and to-dos. My lunch, that sacred moment of peace and basic nourishment, became an urban legend. What did I eat? No idea. How did it taste? Probably stress and despair. I learned then that multitasking is like trying to salsa dance while juggling bananas and tangerines and pineapples at the same time.

photo of person using How to save your productivity and not die trying. Discover what multitasking is and learn how to manage priorities, time and energy.
Beatriz Martín

Beatriz Martín Follow

Reading time: 8 min

The term multitasking

The term “multitasking” did not emerge in a secret laboratory or at a semiotic conference with Umberto Eco. In fact, its first appearance did not even apply to human beings, but to the technology industry. With the first computers, those giant machines that took up entire rooms and had less processing power than your current phone. Well, those computers could only perform one function at a time. Yes, they were fast at their task, but they weren’t exactly versatile.

But one day, in 1965, IBM launched its IBM S/360 system, and with it, the word “multitasking”. This system had the ability to perform multiple tasks simultaneously. Since then, the term has been used not only with computers, but also with human skills, but to what extent does it apply to people?

Many of us have heard of multitasking as the pinnacle of productivity, almost on a par with the “getting up at 5am” that big CEOs are said to use. And while it may be effective at certain times, the reality is that multitasking sabotages productivity.

Why did the computer go to a psychologist? Because it had too many windows open and could not concentrate.

My brain has collapsed

Some studies say that switching from one task to another can reduce productivity by up to 40% due to what is called “attention residue“, or in other words, thinking about the previous activity while starting the next one. Has it ever happened to you that you are analysing some data in Excel and you are still thinking about the conversation you have pending with your partner while trying to understand what is going on in the WhatsApp parent group? Does it only happen to me? No, the reality is that in a hyperconnected world like the one we live and work in, finding a moment to focus on a single task and finish it, without interruptions is a real challenge.

According to Microsoft, people’s average attention spans have dropped by more than 33% since 2000. This (almost) quarter of a century has been one of the greatest times of technological progress in connectivity. During these years, Bluetooth technology has been developed, geolocation at user level (blessed Google Maps), social networks (such as Facebook for older people, or Tiktok for younger people), VOD services (Youtube, Netflix…), and also IoT and Big Data that drive these technologies and make them more user-friendly for the end user.

All of this means that the biggest sources of distraction are our mobiles, social networks, emails and notifications, which mean that every few seconds there are beeps in our lives, or else we start diving through reels of reorganisation of the pantries… It has been calculated that an office employee can suffer interruptions in their work every 3 minutes. With each of these interruptions, the brain needs 22 minutes on average to refocus. 22 minutes for your brain to direct all its resources to a task! But we are distracted every 3 minutes!

Since the 1960s, psychological studies have been investigating the nature and limits of the misnamed “multitasking management“. One of the simplest and at the same time most illustrative experiments is the so-called psychological refractory period effect. Behind this fancy name hides a simple experiment:

  • One group of people was asked to perform two different activities at the same time. At the same time, the control group was asked to do these tasks consecutively.
  • Response time to the second stimulus was measured and a slowdown in response was observed in those who were performing the tasks simultaneously.
  • It was concluded that the brains of the experimental subjects were not able to concentrate fully, took longer to complete tasks and were more susceptible to errors.

In other words, their brains had collapsed, preventing them from working on two different tasks at the same time. However, although we cannot do everything at the same time, we can monitor many perceptual streams and perform perceptual and motor functions simultaneously. In other words, we can synchronise tasks related to the same aspect in short periods of time.

Simultaneous, synchronous and asynchronous tasks

This phenomenon is because our brains are equipped with an amazing ability to switch tasks efficiently, which is often perceived as multitasking. Although we have already seen that true multitasking is a myth – since the brain cannot process tasks that require conscious attention at the same time – it can switch rapidly from one task to another, giving the illusion of simultaneity. This rapid switching can be so fluid that it appears that we are processing several tasks at the same time, but in reality, we are making micro-pauses to switch between tasks that require different types of attention and cognitive skills.

This false feeling of being able to do several things simultaneously has its risks, such as a decrease in the quality of results, the stress of constantly jumping between tasks, or the increased likelihood of mistakes and forgetfulness. In truth, multitasking is the art of being distracted by everything at once, waiting for the universe to align and resolve itself.

On the other hand, we can allow for interaction between tasks according to those concentration and knowledge needs. This is a scenario that tends to be seen in work environments, although it is perfectly transferable to everyday situations. We are talking about synchronous and asynchronous tasks, where the attention and expertise of others may or may not be needed to complete those tasks.

Synchronous task management is ideal when real-time interaction with other people is required, with the aim of taking advantage of their knowledge. These tasks are ideal for resolving doubts, developing ideas, reducing response times or solving common problems. Who hasn’t been talking to their siblings while searching on Amazon for the perfect gift (with the possibility of changing it) for their mother?

In that sense, by being able to discern the needs of one task, we can let it flow at the same time or not as another. Of course, this requirement of attention varies according to people and circumstances, so we have to be flexible when it comes to carrying them out. There will be times when greater focus and concentration is required, without the pressure of immediate response, so we can opt for asynchronous task management that allows us to keep the workflow uninterrupted and without the constraints of real time. This is the case when we take advantage of Sunday to prepare lunch for the rest of the week. Being asynchronous is like having a time travel superpower: you can do things now… or later.

 Thus, task management becomes a personalised art, where each of us has a say, deciding how and when to tackle each task. And that is not a simple mission.

Time for everything

There is no longer any doubt that task management is essential to maintaining sanity in our day-to-day lives. From day-to-day tasks to collaborative projects, knowing how to tackle each task makes the difference between success and chaos. And the ultimate utopia is “having time for everything”.

But what is task management? We are talking about the creation of a “strategic and dynamic system designed to effectively plan and execute tasks, ensuring a smooth path to their successful completion”. Just by reading the definition, we can see that, in our quest to find a good management system, most people tend to make the same mistakes:

  • When we want to complete all the tasks on our list, we miss the “strategic” part of this management. Which task is a priority? Which one allows us to make progress? Is it essential to complete it?
  • We approach it as a black-or-white decision: multitasking or individualised tasks. We forget that our system must be “dynamic”, as we will find ourselves in multiple unexpected situations.
  • And, in our eagerness to cross the task off the list, we do not check its results to ensure “successful completion”.

You get up in the morning, get the kids ready, walk the dog, go to work, attend meetings, prepare paperwork, grab a sandwich from the vending machine, act as a taxi driver for extracurriculars, the boiler broke and you have to call the insurance, you took the fish out of the freezer for dinner, you decide they deserve a snack tonight, the dog is due for vaccinations and you haven’t called the vet… You had a list of things to do, but somehow you’ve only crossed a few off, you decide they deserve a snack tonight, the dog is due for vaccinations and you haven’t called the vet… You had a list of things to do, but somehow you’ve only crossed off a few of them. Task management is more than just a to-do list.

And so, in the midst of this whirlwind of activities, you realise that task management is not just about ticking boxes; it’s a dance between priorities, time and energy. Something that multitasking will never allow you to do. It’s the balance between the urgent and the important, between the planned and the unexpected. Sometimes the key is knowing what to leave unchecked, accepting that not all tasks are crucial and that some can wait.

Other times, it’s finding that moment of calm in the chaos to reorganise and refocus. Because when the sun goes down and the emails calm down, what really remains is personal progress, smiles shared with those who matter and, most importantly, inner peace.


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