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Study says having a plan can help you accomplish one task, but not multiple

Sheryl Nadler
Shine On
May 22, 2012

Addicted to multi-tasking but not succeeding in getting anything done? Research says it's not for lack of making a good, solid plan.

A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that hatching a plan to achieve a particular goal may be beneficial, but it could all fall apart if you try to conquer several goals simultaneously.

"Study after study proves that multi-tasking isn't nearly as effective as we think it is," says Georgina Forrest, productivity consultant and professional organizer at Smartworks! Office Organizing Services in Calgary.

"Our brains are designed to hold only one thought at one time. When we 'multi-task' what we're really doing is switching our thoughts from I want to do this now, instead of that. Over time, it's exhausting. Efficiency of an individual task drops 20—50 per cent when two tasks are performed simultaneously. So, you may think you're saving time by doing several things at the same time, but you're not."

Also see: The supermom myth? Dads more stressed by work-life balance than moms

Study researchers gave participants five days to accomplish either one or six specific tasks. Results showed that having a strategy in place to achieve their respective goals worked well when participants had only one to accomplish. But having a plan didn't help participants who chose to conquer six tasks.

The act of coming up with a strategy or plan to achieve a goal is called implementation intentions, says the study, and has been proven to work when trying to accomplish a singular goal.

"Implemental planning has proven useful for goals ranging from exercising and smoking cessation, to recycling and academic achievement," reports the study. "Although a broad range of goals has been studied, each study has examined the benefits of implementation intentions for a single goal."

Also see: How power can be as addictive as cocaine

Forrest agrees with the theory that focusing on a single task is more beneficial than trying to do 20 things at once.

"We perform best when we're most singularly focused on a given task or goal," she says. "If you must multi-task, then balance a manual and a mental task together such as listening to your voice mail while making coffee."

"We can only do what we can do," she adds. "We will get a better sense of satisfaction and that's motivating."

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