Multitask the Right Way: With Layers

Sometimes multitasking really is the only way to fit in all of your priorities. FInd out how to do it the right way.
Author, McGraw Hill Financial
February 14, 2013

In a few short years, multitasking has gone from star child to black sheep in productivity pop culture. This is because the most common forms of multitasking require rapidly switching between similar tasks, which creates a sort of "flickering" effect in your brain. (Think of a connection gone bad… annoying at best, useless at worst.)

But sometimes multitasking really is the only way to fit in all of your priorities, and the benefits far out weigh any slight quality reduction. Of course, that's if—and this is a big IF—you're doing it the right way. I call this good kind of multitasking "layering."

I define "layering" as strategically deciding to do tasks that require different "channels" of mental functioning such as visual, auditory, manual or language. As David Meyer, one of the world's leading experts on multitasking, explains in this New York magazine article, "The only time multitasking does work efficiently is when multiple simple tasks operate on entirely separate channels."

Through my work with time coaching clients, I've seen that layering can have a dramatic positive impact on productivity in four oft-neglected areas: Physical Order, Eating & Exercise, Social Connection, and Mental Processing.

Try out these strategies for fitting in more through layering on complementary activities.  

1. Layering w/ Physical Order

Desk clutter tends to increase in direct proportion to many people's level of creative activity. Because cleaning your desk -- or even emptying your office trash -- almost never seems like a high priority, the piles rise, the garbage gets pushed down, and the apprehension mounts. Each object is a reminder of an undone to-do and an affront to your desire for visual serenity.

To win the war against clutter:

  • Physical Order: Try putting items back in their places, opening mail, emptying your laptop case, dusting your desktop, and filing papers.
  • While you do these sorts of activities: Listening to podcasts, webinars, voicemail, or a conference call where you don't have active participation. 

Bonus Tip: These should all be relatively routine tasks that do not require decision-making. 

2. Layering w/ Eating & Exercise

When you feel time poor, taking care of your physical health can seem frivolous.  But when you layer on refreshing activities, eating and exercise can fit seamlessly into your routine.

To invest more time in health and wellness:

  • Eating & Exercise: Try cooking, going grocery shopping (with a pre-made list), eating a meal, taking a walk, or going to the gym.
  • While you do these sorts of activities: Calling a friend, listening to relaxing music, catching up on the news, watching kids, or thinking through a complex problem.

3. Layering w/ Social Connection

If you're naturally a people person, getting enough human interaction into your day is essential. But even introverts (defined as those re-energized by being alone) need a sense of connection in their lives. With a little forethought, you can integrate people time into your life without overcrowding your already full calendar.

To spend more time with people:

  • Social Connection: Try commuting to work, walking to a meeting, attending an event, volunteering at an organization, going on a business trip or taking a class.
  • With these types of people: Your classmates, colleagues, friends, family members, or children.

4. Layering w/ Mental Processing

The downtime between information intake and action can produce invaluable insight into the best solution for a problem. But if you fill every spare moment with external stimuli like answering texts, checking email, or watching TV, you limit the ability of your intuition to do the proper work.

To increase your time to think:

  • Mental Processing: Try reflecting on the day, considering solutions to a challenge, deciding on the outline of a paper, thinking through audience reaction to a presentation, or processing negative feedback and deciding how you will communicate your concerns.
  • While you do these sorts of activities: Waiting in line, being on hold, getting ready for the day, traveling between meetings, or doing mundane household tasks like laundry or ironing.  

Bonus Tip: I find that by specifically reviewing my notes or feeding my brain with whatever information it needs to mull over directly before doing these tasks and carrying a pen and paper with me, I maximize my ability to solve the problem within the short break in time.

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Elizabeth Grace Saunders is a time management life coach who empowers clients around the world to go from feeling frustrated, overwhelmed and guilty to feeling peaceful, confident and accomplished with how they invest their time. Find out more at 

Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco