Multitasking Doesn’t Work

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by Ryan

How often do you try to do more than one thing at once? For me, it’s almost every time I sit down in front of my computer. I have music going on in the background, perhaps watching a review or video on youtube, while trying to write an article and every so often I’m glancing over at a book that’s open next to my computer. Needless to say, I’m often juggling tasks that aren’t necessarily productive and often detour me from my task at hand. At the moment as I’m writing this article I’m focusing only on this article (so I’m behaving), and guess what… it’s working! Although I probably already knew it in the back of my head, researchers have found that multitasking simply doesn’t work.

In a fairly recent episode of frontline (yes I’m a geek that watches frontline) researchers tested students who thought they were being super productive by doing several tasks at once. Turns out they were just being super distracted. I won’t go into the mechanics of it all, but if you’d like to read more about why that’s the case check out this related article. The point is this. By trying to do too many things at once people are often less productive than simply focusing on one task and doing it well sequentially.

How This Affects Your Wallet

Having tunnel vision and ignoring externalities and distractions will make you much more successful than trying to do everything at once. In personal finance those distractions are often purchases. Focus, focus, focus on the task at hand! Whether it’s eliminating your student loans, paying down your second mortgage, or adding to your passive income fund make your focus concrete so that with absolute certainty you know that this is your task and you won’t be knocked off track. Spending time thinking about too many financial priorities will simply leaving you feeling exhausted, overwhelemed, and a bit like you’re not getting anywhere. Who can blame you when you’re setting yourself up for failure?

When you’re standing at the store debating on whether or not to purchase that next new hot item it’s a lot easier to say no because you want to pay off your student loans rather than saying you need to pay off your student loans, your car, your house, save for retirement, and your next vacation. If you become overwhelmed you’ll probably just give in and buy that hot item because let’s face it… you’re never going to reach all those goals anyways, right? Make your financial goals simple so that you believe you can achieve them and can easily track them.

If you want to eliminate debt or add to your fund focus solely on that. Much like the idea of a debt snowball you’ll reach your goal quicker and feel better about it than having scattered financial goals that you might not hit for a very long time. With more of a positive reinforcement with smaller successes you will be encouraged to stay on track. Yes managing your personal finances can seem a bit daunting at first, but doing one thing at a time first is how you’re going to learn (a bit like taking baby steps). If you’re deep in debt you don’t need to think about how to earn your first million… yet. You need to focus on getting out of debt and controlling your spending before moving on to the million dollar monster goal.

So much like a college student doesn’t learn as well when listening to their ipod, watching a movie, and trying to study, you probably shouldn’t try take on too many financial goals at once either. You might also want to reconsider the purchase of an ipod as well while you’re at it ;)

How I Manage Financial Distractions

I’m pretty focused on my financial goals at the moment. A net worth of $50k by my 26th birthday and no debt are really my only goals related to my finance. Doesn’t seem too complicated or involved considering I run a financial blog, but what else do you really need? Sure I have goals related to websites, personal fitness, and other areas of my life, but making your financial goals can be pretty straightforward. After all you can easily calculate where you’re at and where you need to be. Any time I come across distractions whether they’re purchases, potential business ideas, or otherwise I simply ask myself if they’ll get me closer to the goals I’ve set for myself. If not, then they’re distractions, if so, then I’ll take a closer look.

Avoid spending too much of your time distracting yourself with needless tasks and waste less spending. Rather, make yourself a lean mean financial goal achieving machine!

What distractions do you have from reaching your financial goals?

Do you use the snowball technique to build on small successes rather than focusing on all your goals at once?

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Ary July 7, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Hey Ryan,
I can’t say that I multitask too much. I know that if you try to focus on too many things you’ll eventually lose track of all of them. But sometimes, there is no other solution than multitasking. When you’re out of time and don’t know what do to first, you’ll decide that’s better to multitask, thinking that you can save much more time by doing so.
I believe that with a well organized plan would keep everyone away from multitasking. And another thing, sometimes it depends on luck.

Best regards,
Ary
.-= Ary´s last blog ..Are you the color that will break the mood =-.

Early Retirement Extreme July 7, 2010 at 2:57 pm

I multitask all the time. If I don’t multitask I feel like I’m wasting processing power.
I tend to focus on multiple goals all at once, generally at least three. This is for each action. On top of that I have several macro goals (activities). These will overlap thus ensuring that I am always hitting several microgoals. Works well for me.
.-= Early Retirement Extreme´s last blog ..Advanced cash flow diagrams =-.

Roman Soluk July 8, 2010 at 12:00 am

The snowball technique is my favorite. I like this principle and always use it my life. Thanks for sharing this article.
.-= Roman Soluk´s last blog ..How to avoid food poisoning =-.

ed hardy bags July 8, 2010 at 1:54 am

I can’t say that I multitask too much. I know that if you try to focus on too many things you’ll eventually lose track of all of them. But sometimes, there is no other solution than multitasking. When you’re out of time and don’t know what do to first, you’ll decide that’s better to multitask, thinking that you can save much more time by doing so.

kt- lifedividend July 8, 2010 at 4:37 am

i could never multi task even if i wanted to. I cannot even listen to someone while eating; it is just something that God did not give me and i am just fine with that. I have tried multi tasking in my work and all i did was to waste a lot of time, do very little work and get tired really fast. Sometimes i envy those who can effortlessly handle 4 or 5 things at the same time. They seem so much smarter than everybody else
.-= kt- lifedividend´s last blog ..should you be concerned with market cycles =-.

MakingAMillionDollars July 8, 2010 at 7:05 am

This article is so true. I am always thinking of new ideas for small businesses which actually becomes a huge distraction from my current projects I need to be focused on. Many are great ideas, but I have learned that I can only focus on a couple at a time. This goes the same for weight loss goals or achieving other objectives. You have to stay focused or nothing gets done. As always I enjoy reading your articles. Keep up the good work. Steve
.-= MakingAMillionDollars´s last blog ..What Are the Effects of Economic Materialism on Society =-.

finallygettingtoeven.com July 8, 2010 at 10:12 am

Oh how I disagree. I am the queen of multi-tasking. However, I think there are certain things that one should NOT multi-task on. Such as a surgeon (operating on me) and playing Wii at the same time.

At the present moment I am catching up on bloglines and making comments on the laptop. On the desktop are Vimeo videos being played so that I can find some fun new videos to add to my blog. The laundry is in the machine and dinner is on the stove. AND I will manage to finish all the tasks with the minimal amount of damage. It’s just how my brain works. I cannot and have not ever been able to do one thing at a time. This presently at the moment is a slow time for me, I usually have at least 1-2 other things going on at the same time.

I would simply go insane if someone told me I had to do things one at a time.

Little House July 9, 2010 at 6:03 am

I’m horrible at multi-tasking. I can barely chew gum and walk at the same time. And I surely can’t walk and drink a glass of water, I end up spilling it all over the place. So I’m pretty good at focusing on the task at hand once I get to it. For instance, I have a big test coming up towards my teaching credential next month. I’ve had it in my calendar to study all this month for the test. I’ve been procrastinating quite a bit and am down to 28 days before the big day. Once I actually begin studying, I’ll be completely focused. It’s just getting there that sometimes takes me a while. ;)
.-= Little House´s last blog ..Newlywed Financial Bliss Box =-.

Mike Olson July 10, 2010 at 5:53 pm

It is hard to get anything done when focusing on multiple tasks. Of course, in a way personal finance requires that your attention be focused in multiple places at once…pay the mortgage, reduce debt, save for retirement…etc.

Maybe the best way is to only have one main goal at a time and primarily focus on that, but also put some effort into the lesser goals.

Anyway, your articles always make me think. Good job.
.-= Mike Olson´s last blog ..Jul 10- earning some cash =-.

Gregg Pechmann July 13, 2010 at 4:17 am

The easiest way for me to accomplish goals has been to line them up and pick them off one at a time…….BUT a lot of my daily work requires multitasking or a better word for it is rearranging….

myfinancialobjectives July 13, 2010 at 3:55 pm

I USUALLY stay pretty focused on my goals, although lately, I have just flat out ignored them. It’s summer, and that means summer vacations. Summer vacations mean I am spending quite a bit of money. But you know what? It’s worth it. I am having a blast so far, and fully intend on delaying my debt repayment to continue doing so. I’ll pay back my loans when it’s 20 degrees and snowing:)

Doug Warshauer July 14, 2010 at 4:54 pm

I’m like Little House – can’t do two things at once. If I’m having a conversation while I’m driving, I’m almost guaranteed to pass up my next turn, even if it is the street I live on! So I’m feeling a bit better about myself after reading this post. Thanks!

Darren July 15, 2010 at 11:01 am

Generally, I think it’s better to focus on one financial task at a time. If you need to get out of debt, build up a savings account, or fund a 401k and IRA, you should focus on one at a time.

But what if you’re trying to get out of debt, and your employer offers a match on the contributions? Perhaps it’d be better to put in an amount up to the match, and then put the rest towards debt repayment. It’s essentially free money, and a 50% return on your money if that’s how much they match. Credit cards rarely have interest rates that high.
.-= Darren´s last blog ..Why I Wanna Be A Millionaire- And What I’m Gonna Do About It =-.

Greg McFarlane July 16, 2010 at 7:45 am

I think it’s important to distinguish between tasks that require you to engage your brain, and mindless ones.

When I’m writing a book chapter or a blog post, then yeah, I’ll harbor no distractions. But if I’m reconciling my bank statements or entering information in a database, I can simultaneously be cooking dinner or folding laundry (while waiting for the seed of the next great blog post idea to germinate in my subconscious.)

Len Penzo July 16, 2010 at 4:24 pm

I’m absolutely terrible at multitasking. I’m – hold on a minute…
.-= Len Penzo ´s last blog ..A Clever Consumer Trick for Ensuring Smart Spending Decisions No- Not ‘Eeenie Meenie Chili Beanie’ =-.

Moneyedup July 16, 2010 at 4:54 pm

I can agree that multitasking is much less productive than it appears to be. When you have too many things going on at once you end up producing things of lower quality and with more mistakes. When I was in university I always preferred taking condensed courses in the spring because I could focus on one or two classes at a time as opposed to the fall and winter when I have to focus on five or six classes all at one. I felt that I learned more if I just focused on one class because I was able to delve deeper into the subject matter and really understand it.
.-= Moneyedup´s last blog ..Changes in Personal Bankruptcy Law =-.

Mark Bell July 17, 2010 at 5:03 am

Hey Ryan,
When it comes to multi-tasking your money, I have found personally that it’s easier to focus on single goals. Get the small debts out of the way first usually, then work on what’s next.

OlivAmor July 17, 2010 at 7:28 am

Hi There Ryan, hope you enjoying your summer. I do find it harder to stay focussed on goals during the summer–not sure if it’s because of the weather, but I try to use a combination of approaches. That is to say, I like to multitask when I have a few short-term financial goals that are similar (whether in timeframe to complete, in the amounts needed, etc) then focussing on long-term individual goals. I do try to contribute on a regular basis for the long-term goals (don’t want to neglect them completely). It does take some strategizing & finessing but I have found it to work for me. Cristina
.-= OlivAmor´s last blog ..Screening Manoel de Oliveiras work =-.

Arlene July 20, 2010 at 3:45 pm

This is another insightful article.

You lose the quality when your multiple tasts, the brain can only go in so many directions and then you lose the focus of the tasks. Unforturely this is the world we live in today so we have to multiple tasts. I just put myselve on a tight time table to get everything done so I don’t lose ground.

youngandthrifty July 21, 2010 at 6:43 pm

I’m a huge culprit of multi-tasking.

That’s why I have to write things down, or I really will forget, often my mind is going 100 miles a minute, thinking of what I need to do, what still needs to be done, what I just did etc.

Great post!
.-= youngandthrifty´s last blog ..Mortgage Broker or Big Bank- Who to Choose =-.

James July 23, 2010 at 9:53 am

staying focused on work or personal finance does require us to stay disciplined and really tuning out unnecessary information.

keeping a list of things and goals that i want to reach has made all the difference for me. it does not need to be complicated. but a basic list that you work off of can hopefully help you too.

Jk Allen July 27, 2010 at 9:56 am

I think that Multitasking is a gift. Just as everyone doesn’t have the ability to speak well in front of others, everyone doesn’t have the ability to multitask. Unfortunately it’s become an expectation and an inaccurate judgement of productivity – but in reality, only a few do it well.

Being organized is my way to smooth multitasking. There are times when I’m better at it than others – but in the real word, to be successful, you have to have a high threshold for re-prioritizing and addressing certain situations as they arise.

Nice Post, thanks.

newmoney mom August 20, 2010 at 4:36 am

I’m good at multi-tasking when housework is involved. But when it involves writing I think it depends on my mood. When I don’t have a particularly good format I skim through web pages to get some ideas. Sometimes I finish 3 tasks at a time but sometimes I just can’t write a single sentence just like now that I need to focus hard.
Financially speaking I also have a hard time prioritising my expenses. But I really love your debt snowball plan. I owned my in-laws $1250 when I had my son brought to the hospital. I paid them $100 first then $150 the next and now I’m already half way there. I really felt good when thinking that my debt shrinks little by little with each passing day.

Mr Prestigue October 14, 2010 at 9:57 pm

I believe if you can’t focus your attention on one job at a time you won’t do well on the other ones. Most jobs require us to be multi-taskers, but it doesn’t mean that they are the best candidates.
.-= Mr Prestigue´s last blog ..Chilean miners finally rescued!!! =-.

Dave Crenshaw March 21, 2011 at 1:06 am

I couldn’t agree more.
Having multiple task on hand all at the same time means messing up with quality, efficiency and productivity.

If you value the quality and productivity of your work. Focus only to one task at a time and when it’s done then you can move on to the next one.

Dave Crenshaw May 22, 2011 at 8:28 pm

Having multiple tasks on hand all at the same time means messing up with quality, efficiency and productivity.

To learn more about the effects of multitasking, take my free exercise at http://www.davecrenshaw.com/exercise

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