10 Ways to Multitask Better

Say no. Toss that memo. And tweet only if you’ve got something to say.

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Don't send that tweet! It might impair your productivity, raise your anxiety levels, and even damage your health.

[See why you might be better off than you think.]

If you're feeling overwhelmed by digitalia, it turns out you've got some heady company. In its monthly newsletter, consulting firm McKinsey recently published an article, "Recovering From Information Overload," that validates many of the frustrations ordinary workers feel when trying to keep up with email, manage their Blackberries, download the latest apps, blog, evangelize, tweet, retweet, update, Webinate, Meetup, log in, LinkIn, Plax, and answer the phone—all while doing whatever their actual job is. "Multitasking is not heroic," authors Derek Dean and Caroline Webb insist, refreshingly. "It's counterproductive."

It's also becoming a kind of syndrome. Multitasking, it turns out, leads to something called "attention fragmentation," which happens when we try to direct our brain power to a number of different things all at once. It doesn't work so well. The brain, Dean and Webb explain, works best when handling one job at a time. A 2006 study, for example, found that a bottleneck of information formed when participants tried to do several tasks at once; they made twice as many mistakes and took 30 percent longer, than people who did the same tasks sequentially, one after another. Other studies have shown that information overload adds to stress (no surprise there) and impedes creativity, since it's hard to get in the zone when you're constantly interrupted. There's even evidence that ringing phones and dinging email alerts can temporarily lower your IQ.

That's the way corporate America operates, of course, with a kind of perpetual manhood contest—even among women—over who can answer an email from the boss the fastest, log in from home the latest, garner the most Twitter followers, and find the coolest new iPad apps. Rainmakers and top executives have even more to juggle, since they need to schmooze at dinners and cocktail hours, visit clients, preside over obligatory meetings—lest the company cease to function—and travel to China, India, or wherever the latest distribution center is set to open. "Many senior executives literally have two overlapping workdays," McKinsey says. There's the formal workday of meetings and calls outlined on their calendars, then a second one when they catch up on email and undertake a "vain effort to keep pace with the information flowing toward them."

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All that multitasking can drive workers crazy, but never mind that: It's a corporate problem, too. A 2009 Harvard Business Review article by Paul Hemp enumerated a variety of ways that information overload harms the bottom line. It takes 24 minutes for the typical worker to get back on task after opening an email, for instance, and office workers, on average, spend two hours a day on email. Interruptions account for 28 percent of the workday. And overall, information overload sucks $900 billion out of the U.S. economy.

It doesn't have to be this way. Here are 10 ways to beat back the information deluge, minitask instead of multitask, and reclaim your sanity:

Say no as often as possible. In his book American Heroes, historian Edmund Morris argues that George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were transformational leaders because of one trait they shared: "They both knew when and why to say no." No to the many influencers who wanted a favor, no to the amateur generals and diplomats who thought they knew better, no to colleagues or backbenchers who were simply impatient for action. Try it sometime. Say no to tasks that amount to busy work or don't advance a meaningful goal. Or simply don't respond when somebody asks. Start gradually, and make sure you take care of what matters—your clients, your boss, and your employees. But shorten your to-do list by leaving off the items that don't really need to get done.

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Ask yourself if you're addicted: To the promise of an unread email, the welcome distraction that your Blackberry offers during a dull meeting, or the self-satisfaction that comes from filling your blog or Twitter stream with your views on everything. If you are, then don't bother with banal coping strategies like checking your email only at infrequent intervals, or declaring certain time windows information-free. It won't work. You need more aggressive strategies—like leaving your Blackberry or laptop behind sometimes—or simply acquiescing to your addiction. But think about that before you start a family, lest your kids become "Blackberry orphans" who battle with your device for your attention.

Turn everything off. If you need time during the day to read, talk, or think, shut down all your gizmos, or go someplace where you can't be reached. Some CEOs declare "alone time" in the early morning or evening, instructing their assistants to make sure nobody bothers them. If you don't have an assistant, be your own—and be ruthless when somebody tries to enter your sanctuary uninvited.

Selectively detach. Bill Gross, CEO of the big bond-trading firm PIMCO, tells McKinsey that he doesn't use a cell phone or Blackberry, and doesn't look at emails that he doesn't want to: "I don't want to be connected; I want to be disconnected." If you're not a CEO, you might not get away with that, but productive workers can make a strong case for not answering every email or phone call immediately: They're working and getting the job done, not manning a communications hub. It takes a confident boss to give workers a longer leash, a luxury many employees don't have. But if you focus on generating results, and make sure the boss is aware when you do, there will be less of a need to track you down at any time of day (or night).

[See who will prosper in 2011.]

Digest good information, more slowly. The torrent of data and information that's constantly flowing amps up our workday metabolism, since we feel a need to digest it all. But that's impossible—and everybody else feels just as behind as you do. The trick is spending your time on information that matters, and making sure you absorb it. Focus on too many things, by contrast, and you'll probably miss the most important nuggets. Again, disregard what you don't need to spend time on, and devote yourself to the rest.

Exercise. Physical activity can declutter the brain, and many exercisers say they feel bursts of creativity after just 15 or 20 minutes of working out. If you're going to do it, try to single-task instead of running while you answer a few emails, which yes, you can do, thanks to innovations like the "walkstation:" a treadmill with a PC at the head.

Don't rely on technology to simplify your life. Hundreds of apps, programs, and gadgets promise to help make you more productive, and a few might actually work. But they also take time to learn, enlarge the bucket of things you have to manage, and give you more chargers to lose. You don't have to splurge for every upgrade or jump on every social-media bandwagon. Focus on tools that actually help you accomplish your bottom-line goals, and after that, rely on old-fashioned prioritization.

[Got better ideas? Let us know: flowchart@usnews.com]

Don't answer every email. Hemp of Harvard Business Review says that every outgoing email generates two replies—so you're lowering your own workload by responding more selectively. Also do your co-workers a favor by limiting "reply all" answers to information everybody needs to know. Save the LOLs and chatty comments for your confidants. Or just skip them.

Say something meaningful. Busy people who manage their time well don't read emails, blogs, or Facebook updates that tell them what somebody else had for breakfast. They only spend their time on useful information. If you're posting your thoughts for professional purposes, leave out the personal trivial while saying something relevant or linking to informative material. If you don't feel you have something original to say, relax. Many people don't, and it's okay. Be a social-media "follower" until you get the hang of it and find a way you might add value.

[See who will struggle in 2011.]

Remember Friendster. It was hot for a nanosecond, and early adopters rushed to join. Then it faded. Same with MySpace, which looked like it might be headed mainstream but is now mostly a network for musicians and their fans. Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are obviously hot now, but they too could become less important than hype suggests as they become increasingly corporate and more nimble competitors spring up. Sure, you might gain an edge by being part of the first wave, but a lot of those waves peter out. And sometimes a later wave can be even bigger.

Twitter: @rickjnewman