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Why limiting mental shifts helps you at work

Multitasking isn't the solution many people think it is. Here's a better way to prioritize and actually get done what needs to get done.

5 min read


Why limiting mental shifts helps you at work


We all do it — sneak in that quick task when we have 2.4 minutes to spare and don’t want to miss a second of time in a day. Whether it is getting out an extra prospecting note or paying a bill online, we leave the moment feeling accomplished because we checked off another box on our to-do list.

But what if I told you that these mental shifts result in less productivity in the course of a day? Does the ability to perceivably do more outweigh the truth of less productivity?

When we block time in specific chunks to focus on finite tasks that correlate, our mind has the ability to settle in and get comfortable with the work. This time allows our brain to free-flow into ideas and opportunities and focus on one specific area without being pulled into the multitasking universe that we have been conditioned to buy into.

So, what really happens when we multitask? Your brain has to make mental leaps multiple times in order to complete the multitude of tasks at hand. If you are ordering food on an app for your family and trying to solve a complex math problem at the same time, your brain hasn’t had the opportunity to give either task your full attention.

The mental shift of using a survival thought process of “We are going to starve if I don’t order dinner” to “I owe this revenue projection to my boss by 5:30 p.m.” causes the brain to use more energy in order to complete the tasks effectively.

Research suggests that if you limit the amount of role shifting you do in a day, you can be more productive. The more role shifts that you do, the less effective you are at those roles. For example, in a day, you can be a mom, manager, wife, daughter, back to manager, back to wife, back to mom and so on. Research suggests that the more that you can limit those role shifts, the less cognitive strain this puts on your body. I believe the same to be true with mental shifts. In fact, some researchers support this notion stating that productivity can drop by as much as 40% when a person is multitasking.

Multitasking impairs your cognitive ability. According to MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller, our brains “are not wired to multitask well … when people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost.”

Additionally, when we multitask and have subpar outputs, that negatively feeds our cycle of success and influences our prioritization of what we should and shouldn’t be working on. If I am squeezing important work in between other deliverables and not seeing the impact that I expect, I won’t spend more time on those tasks in the future.

For example, if I can push out three prospecting emails between meetings but get zero traction, next time, I might not send those prospecting emails out. In reality, if I were dedicating a block of time to prospecting and was deep into the mindset, I would have better results that would encourage me to do more focused work more often.

If you are a chronic multitasker (I feel seen) and find it hard to stop, please stop. Research out of Stanford University shows that chronic multitasking rewires your brain and results in becoming chronically less productive. Below are a few suggestions to boost your productivity by limiting your mental shifts.

  1. Limit distractions by turning all electronic devices into “do not disturb” mode and turn off notifications.
  2. Block your calendar in larger blocks of time that allow for you to focus solely on the task at hand.
  3. Set an intention with your block of time on what you would like to accomplish.
  4. Take on your toughest challenges first.
  5. If your task involves multiple outputs, group them together by type of output so that you can be in that same frame of mind in the entire block of work.
  6. Schedule in time after your block of work to take a mental break and prime your mind for the next task at hand.

If you want more information on this concept, check out “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” by Cal Newport. His observations prove that “to produce at your peak level, you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.”

Now on to my next time block of work!


Mom, wife and advertising executive, Samantha Zurek has lived in Chicago for the past 20 years transforming startups into powerhouses. She has been successful building teams and operations for hyper growth companies within the advertising space. Living by her own mantra, “Build your jetpack,” Zurek has strived to add strategic and incremental knowledge with each career move vowing to never do the same job twice. As a guiding principle, she has a passion for building teams and individuals to reach their maximum potential and providing opportunities to grow beyond the glass ceiling of possibilities. 

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