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While the ability to multitask can seem like a positive skill, there is a lot of research into the actual downsides of having too much on one’s plate at once. The act of “task switching,” or moving in between two separate tasks, often results in lost time and focus, making it an impediment to productivity.
This is particularly the case in research, when employees shift between searching and archiving data and lose track of things in the process, leading to dropped balls and potentially crucial errors. To avoid losing time between tasks, researchers can and should implement a system that helps them prioritize and reduce the need to multitask.
Creating such a system is easier said than done, however. In this article, we’ll go over the impact of task switching, explain the benefits of a prioritization system, and outline the best ways to get started.
According to Psychology Today, task switching “involves several parts of your brain: […] the pre-frontal cortex is involved in shifting and focusing your attention, and selecting which task to do when. The posterior parietal lobe activates rules for each task you switch to, the anterior cingulate gyrus monitors errors, and the pre-motor cortex is preparing for you to move in some way.”
Put simply, shifting between two tasks means using time and energy to reset, which is secretly eating away at your ability to get all tasks completed. The same Psychology Today article estimates that task switching can lead to a 40% decrease in overall completion of tasks, which is greater than many people realize.
Luckily, there are many ways to prevent task switching that can help researchers get out of this habit. One of the best methods is by prioritizing tasks so that they can be completed in the correct order. Many people task switch when they feel like a more urgent task requires them to put down their current work, which proves to be ineffective for both tasks. This drain on resources (both technological and mental) is easily avoided by having a prioritization system in place.
Here are some benefits of implementing this structure.
Every manager has experienced a scenario in which their direct report is dropping balls because they are overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. The easiest way to go from overload into a motivated, focused work mindset is to know exactly what’s on one’s plate and where to begin.
Prioritizing tasks means reducing any kind of decision fatigue, especially when a system is so clear that it’s obvious which new task falls into what priority level. This can improve communication between employees and managers, too, because it ensures that employees are always on the same page about what should come first.
All that clarity leads to increased productivity because researchers can focus on the actual work instead of the labor of managing an influx of tasks. Workplaces become more efficient when each member has a clear to-do list that allows them to chip away at work in a linear way without doing everything at once.
MORE: Creating an effective workflow process
Of course, there are plenty of steps to craft and implement such a system. Here is an outline of where to begin.
Begin with labels that help place each task into a clear category, such as “urgent/non-urgent” and assign deadlines to specific tasks. Consider using a color-coding system (i.e. red tasks are immediate, yellow are mildly urgent, and green are tasks that can wait until everything else is completed.)
Workflow tools like AirTable can organize these automatically. For instance, if a manager is assigning out data points that need to be researched, they can add a deadline into AirTable and their direct reports can organize their AirTable views by deadline, so the soonest tasks show up on the top of the list.
It’s important to understand the difference between short-term projects and goals versus longer-term, evergreen objectives. This differentiation will provide clarity whenever a researcher needs to decide how to categorize a task’s priority, because it illuminates the types of needs that come first for short-term goals.
Once this clarity is provided, teams can align tasks within those overarching objectives and categorize them as such. This is a crucial step in the creation of a prioritization system as it begins to physically separate out each to-do so that they can be listed in their specific order of importance.
The previous steps have considered tasks for the whole team without diving into the individual players and teams in charge of each item. Now, it’s important to identify which tasks involve which parts of the organization, especially when there are overlaps that require multiple stakeholders to collaborate or approve items.
You should also consider external factors that may affect prioritization in this step. These constraints can include anything from employee turnover to unexpected customer demands that require shifts in how tasks are prioritized. For instance, if a research team is working on understanding the consumer desires around one branch of the company, but the customer service team receives and influx of questions about another feature, they made need to abruptly re-prioritize and re-categorize tasks to meet the current needs.
Once the order of priority has been decided, organize the tasks in a clear sequence. Sequencing tasks minimizes task switching and maximizes efficiency.
Consider a researcher who has completed their first job of the day and needs to know what comes next. With a sequence of tasks, they can easily glance at the next in line and begin that work instead of spending minutes or hours sifting through a list and weighing the options.
This organized workflow allows for the most efficient completion of processes, saving time, energy, and money.
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The process of creating a research workflow prioritization system does not have to be completely manual or home-made. Here are tools and frameworks that help this process come to life and will continue to be helpful throughout the lifetime of the system.
Many workflow management tools have research-specific programming that allow for ease in the research work model. This might mean that employees can bookmark and save data while browsing the web without needing to tab switch or that completed analysis of data gets automatically added to a shared folder for the full team to see.
On average, these tools simplify research by collecting data in a central location, saving users an average of 50% of their normal time spent on research.
Time blocking or scheduling specific tasks into your calendar is a great way to allocate time for a task and, therefore, increase focus and decrease multitasking. Many people simply put blocks on their calendar to remind them to complete an important project at that time, so that they are not tempted to do something else.
Another helpful method of time allocation is the Pomodoro Technique, in which one sets a timer for 25-30 minutes and focuses only on the task at hand during that chunk of time. After the alarm goes off, take a 5-minute break and then repeat until the task is complete. This way, anyone who often falls victim to taking breaks or task switching is instead motivated to work through the full half hour, knowing they will soon be able to give into the desire to break or pause.
MORE: How management consultants can mitigate market disruptions with research
As with any system, it’s important to remember that the very first iteration of task prioritization won’t necessarily be the most perfect workflow system. Regular reviews and updates are necessary to work out kinks, assess effectiveness, and evaluate if the original workflow is improving productivity.
Companies should also regularly solicit employee feedback from any teams impacted by the new prioritization systems. As mentioned earlier, most successful systems will allow for better communication across the company and an increase in clarity, so it’s vital to check if that’s the case. If not, adjustments can be made like re-ordering priorities or shifting to a more automated workflow so that the system becomes fully effective.
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There is a great deal of time and resources lost when employees must multitask or battle overload on their own, so companies must work toward having effective prioritization systems. Without identifying levels of urgency and ranking importance of tasks, far too much work goes into deciding what to do instead of doing it.
With a clear system of priorities and tools to help you streamline your research, workflow for research projects becomes more efficient, and you minimize the amount of time lost to energy-draining tasks. That way, you can save your valuable resources to make the most impact on your business.