Juggling 50 different projects at once might make you feel like Superman—but don’t get a hero complex just yet. According to a recent study from researchers at the University of Utah, people who multitask are actually less productive than people who focus on one thing at a time. Even more depressing: people who believe themselves to be master multitaskers are seriously overestimating their capabilities.
In the study, researchers asked 310 students about their multitasking abilities, then gave them tests to prove themselves, like asking them to calculate simple mathematical equations while remembering a sequence of letters. Despite the fact that 70 percent of participants believed they had above-average multitasking skills, the students who focused on a single job at hand scored higher on actual multitasking ability than the ones who had their attention split.
Blame a lack of focus. “If we don’t have a clear set of goals, we’ll find too many irrelevant things seemingly important,” says study co-author David Sanbonmatsu, Ph.D., a social psychology professor at Utah.
Want to get out of the multitasking mindset? Use these tricks to help divide and conquer your to-do list:
1. Turn Off Your Distractions
Your blinking cell phone, the pop-up window for email, and that GChat message ding all disrupt your concentration and prolong your work. (In fact, even a 2.8-second moment of distraction can lead to mistakes, according to a new study from Michigan State University.) Laura Stack, author of What to Do When There’s Too Much to Do, suggests adjusting your notifications to only alert you of messages from important people like your boss. You can respond to your buddy’s fantasy trade proposal during your lunch hour.
2. Talk About Deadlines
Your boss may throw five different assignments at you, but he doesn’t need all of them at once. Don’t assume you’re free to do whatever job your boss gives you whenever you feel like, Stack says. People forget about their relative priorities because they tend to tackle projects that are the most fun for them first. Ask whoever handed you the assignments when they need them done and change your priorities accordingly.
3. Know When You’re Most Energized
Are you a morning go-getter or do you find yourself breezing through assignments mid-afternoon? You don’t want to work on complicated assignments when your brain is ready to snooze. “Understand when you’re most active because then you’ll be in the mindset to tackle bigger tasks and problems that require more energy,” Stack says. Knock out the smaller tasks that don’t need much brainpower when you’re not in a work mood. Save the bigger responsibilities for when you know you’ll be able to put in the effort needed to do a solid job.
4. Keep a Running List of Duties
Every night after work, jot down the main goals you need to take care of for the following day. Break down each task into its component parts, so that you know specifically what you need to do for each one, and how to prioritize each portion. To keep track of it all, download the task-listing app Clear ($1.99 for iOS) to both your smartphone and your computer. It’s a simple cloud-based way to keep track of your to-do list, whether you’re at work or out and about.
5. Keep a “Later” Log
One reason that people have a hard time getting tasks accomplished: They get distracted with other, equally important tasks in the middle of working on the first, Stack says. The best way to combat the task distraction? Jot down any new thoughts onto a note-pad (or in your Clear app), and then immediately return to the job at hand. Once you’re done with the job in front of you, then you can attend to and prioritize the new item on your to-do list.