“Multitasking is merely the opportunity to screw up more than one thing at a time.” -Steve Uzze
Multitasking is our tendency to split our attention on more than one task or activity at the same time. It is a concept emanating from the computing world -the execution by a computer of more than one program or task simultaneously. Multitasking is a great lie we all tell ourselves, we feel we can juggle 5 things at the same time, hence we open 50 browser tabs, listen to music while surfing the internet, at the same time vacuuming, etc but the challenge is that we do not get much done because of this divided attention. Our brain is not wired to do multiple things at the same time.
It is only possible to do two things at a time if they require different cognitive capacities like reading a book & listening to music, driving, and talking on the phone (handsfree). We live in a society where multitasking is seen as a superpower – you see it in job descriptions, productivity experts encourage it, social media enables it and we groom our kids to be natural multitaskers. While multitasking, it seems like we are getting a lot done but in reality, it leads to reduced productivity and ultimately anxiety.
What we call multi-tasking is usually shifting our attention and task switching our focus from one activity to the next. Stanford University researchers professor Clifford Nass et al found that heavy media multitaskers find it hard to filter relevant information from irrelevant task sets. And multitaskers also pay a mental price as it impairs their cognitive control.
Psychologist and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman once quipped, “The often-used phrase ‘pay attention’ is apt: you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail.”
“We call it multitasking, which makes it sound like an ability to do lots of things at the same time. … A Buddhist would call this monkey mind.” We think we’re mastering multitasking, but we’re just driving ourselves bananas.” – Billy Collins
As American entrepreneur and best-selling author, Gary Keller writes in his book, The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results – multitasking is one of the six lies standing between YOU and success. He writes:
Multitasking is about multiple tasks alternately sharing one resource (the CPU), but in time the context was flipped and it became interpreted to mean multiple tasks being done simultaneously by one resource (a person). It was a clever turn of phrase that’s misleading, for even computers can process only one piece of code at a time. When they “multitask,” they switch back and forth, alternating their attention until both tasks are done. The speed with which computers tackle multiple tasks feeds the illusion that everything happens at the same time, so comparing computers to humans can be confusing.
“People can actually do two or more things at once, such as walk and talk, or chew gum and read a map; but, like computers, what we can’t do is focus on two things at once. Our attention bounces back and forth”
It’s strange, but somehow over time, the image of the modern human has become one of a multitasker. We think we can, so we think we should. Kids studying while texting, listening to music, or watching television. Adults driving while talking on the phone, eating, applying makeup, or even shaving. Doing something in one room while talking to someone in the next. Smartphones in hands before napkins hit laps.
It’s not that we have too little time to do all the things we need to do, it’s that we feel the need to do too many things in the time we have. So we double and triple up in the hope of getting everything done.
Distraction, disturbance, disruption. Staying on task is exhausting. Researchers estimate that workers are interrupted every 11 minutes and then spend almost a third of their day recovering from these distractions. And yet amid all of this, we still assume we can rise above it and do what has to be done within our deadlines.
Researchers estimate that workers are interrupted every 11 minutes and then spend almost a third of their day recovering from these distractions.
When you switch from one task to another, voluntarily or not, two things happen. The first is nearly instantaneous: you decide to switch. The second is less predictable: you have to activate the “rules” for whatever you’re about to do. Switching between two simple tasks—like watching television and folding clothes—is quick and relatively painless.
However, if you’re working on a spreadsheet and a co-worker pops into your office to discuss a business problem, the relative complexity of those tasks makes it impossible to easily jump back and forth. It always takes some time to start a new task and restart the one you quit, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever pick up exactly where you left off.
You can do two things at once, but you can’t focus effectively on two things at once.
There is a price for this. “The cost in terms of extra time from having to task switch depends on how complex or simple the tasks are,” reports researcher Dr. David Meyer. “It can range from time increases of 25 percent or less for simple tasks to well over 100 percent or more for very complicated tasks.” Task switching exacts a cost few realize they’re even paying.
Task switching exacts a cost few realize they’re even paying.
In 2009, Associate Professor of Management at the University of Washington, Dr. Sophie Leroy published a paper titled: “Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks“. She noted that “In many jobs, employees must manage multiple projects or tasks at the same time. A typical workday often entails switching between several work activities, including projects, tasks, and meetings.”
Sophie Leroy on Attention Residue:
“What research shows is that, generally, the brain finds it difficult to switch between tasks. In particular, my research reveals that, as we switch between tasks (for example from a Task A to a Task B), part of our attention often stays with the prior task (Task A) instead of fully transferring to the next one (Task B). This is what I call Attention Residue, when part of our attention is focused on another task instead of being fully devoted to the current task that needs to be performed.”
“Attention residue easily occurs when we leave tasks unfinished, when we get interrupted, or when we anticipate that once we have a chance to get to the unfinished or pending work we will have to rush to get it done. Our brain finds it hard to let go of these tasks, and instead keeps them active in the back of our mind, even when are trying to focus on and perform other tasks.”
The research performed by Leroy revealed through two experiments, people need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another. Yet, results indicate it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task, and their subsequent task performance suffers. Being able to finish one task before switching to another is, however, not enough to enable effective task transitions. Time pressure while finishing a prior task is needed to disengage from the first task and thus move to the next task and it contributes to higher performance on the next task.
“Going back to the analogy of a Task A and a Task B, when you experience attention residue and keep thinking about Task A while working on Task B, it means you have fewer cognitive resources available to perform Task B. The impact? Your performance on Task B is likely to suffer, especially if Task B is cognitively demanding.”
In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, computer science professor at Georgetown University and author Cal Newport noted:
To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work. If you’re not comfortable going deep for extended periods of time, it’ll be difficult to get your performance to the peak levels of quality and quantity increasingly necessary to thrive professionally. Unless your talent and skills absolutely dwarf those of your competition, the deep workers among them will outproduce you.
In his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, author Greg Mckeown writes:
At this point you might expect me to start talking about the evils of multitasking—about how a true Essentialist never attempts to do more than one thing at a time. But in fact we can easily do two things at the same time: wash the dishes and listen to the radio, eat and talk, clear the clutter on our desk while thinking about where to go for lunch, text message while watching television, and so on. What we can’t do is concentrate on two things at the same time. When I talk about being present, I’m not talking about doing only one thing at a time. I’m talking about being focused on one thing at a time. Multitasking itself is not the enemy of Essentialism; pretending we can “multifocus” is.
Multitasking itself is not the enemy of Essentialism; pretending we can “multifocus” is.
American essayist and critic William Deresiewicz in a lecture delivered to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October 2009, titled: Solitude and Leadership
Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think.
Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.
I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.
It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea.
In Finish What You Start: The Art of Following Through, Taking Action, Executing, & Self-Discipline, bestselling author, human psychology and behavior researcher Peter Hollins profers some great strategies for getting things done:
Singletasking is an important concept because it definitively proves the flaws of multitasking. When you switch from task to task, you create attention residue. This means it takes a while for you to adjust to each new task, even if you were already familiar with it. You can eliminate this by single-tasking, and also by batching, which is when you do all similar types of tasks together to capitalize on your mental efficiency.
To set everything else aside and not check, monitor, email, or even touch anything other than the current task you are working on. It requires singular focus and the purposeful and intentional tuning out of everything else. Switch off your notifications and ditch your phone. If you must be on your computer, keep only one browser tab or program open at a time. A lot of singletasking is about consciously avoiding distractions that seem small and harmless. The biggest culprits? Your electronic devices. Ignore them when possible.
“Keep a spotless workspace so your eye doesn’t catch something that needs cleaning or adjusting. Ideally, singletasking reduces your environment to a blank room because you shouldn’t pay attention to any of it.”
Batching is when you group similar tasks together to complete them all at once. Ford’s assembly line was essentially 100% batching because his workers only performed one task incredibly efficiently. Perhaps more importantly, it teaches the lesson that saying no to some tasks is just as important as saying yes to the correct ones. Batching teaches the art of purposeful, deliberate ignorance so you can focus on other tasks.
“Batching allows you to save your mental energy for the tasks themselves and not waste your energy on the process of switching back and forth between them.”
The more you divide your attention among different activities, the less productive you’ll be. However, if you begin doing something similar to the previous activity, you’ll find it’s much easier to get going because your mind is already geared toward doing a certain kind of task. Do all the similar tasks together, one after the other, and then move on to the next batch of similar or related activities. Effective batching can skyrocket your productivity no matter the context.
“You can also batch your distractions. This isn’t to distract and amuse yourself more efficiently; it’s to make sure that you are conserving your energy and allowing your focused time to be exactly that—focused.”
In Get Your Sh*t Together: How to Stop Worrying about What You Should Do So You Can Finish What You Need to Do and Start Doing What You Want to Do, anti-guru Sarah Knight advocates for effective time management as a tool for re-aligning our focus. She writes:
The secret to time management isn’t speeding up or slowing down. It’s about strategy and focus. (Strategy: Y = how much time does X take? Focus: if X is a necessary task, schedule Y minutes/hours to get it done; and/or undertake X task only when you have Y minutes/hours available.) In other words, don’t try to shove a square phone call with your mother into a round five minutes.
Once you understand how time applies to your life, you’ll be able to use it as a force for good instead of a force for missing flights or pissing off your dinner date. Meanwhile, perhaps invest in a sundial, which is a perfect visual reminder to keep working on your time management skills. And they’re quite pretty.
“Your best friend and worst enemy: Time is the mother ship from which two competing forces—prioritization and procrastination—descend to create order or wreak chaos on your life.“
“These mental houseguests rear their heads around every corner, especially in the top three problem areas revealed by my survey: Work (i.e., email/correspondence/project management), Finances (i.e., time as it relates to saving $), and Health (i.e., scheduling fitness and/or relaxation so you can win at life without also losing your mind).”
TED Talk – Multitasking in Slow Motion
In his 2019 TED talk, author Tim Harford introduced the concept of slow-motion multitasking which is the active juggling of multiple projects and moving between topics as the mood strikes without feeling hurried. He shared examples and insights from great innovators of our time like Albert Einsten, Charles Darwin, Twyla Tharp and Michael Crichton and how they found their inspiration and productivity through cross-training their minds. Tim noted that multitasking is not necessarily bad if we do it in slow motion.
One of the great way have found to deal with the tendency to always want to multitask is to set boundaries on your time by scheduling, batching, doing deep work, using tools like the pomodoro technique and having a single-mindedness of purpose.
Staying focused in the age of social media is becoming extremely hard as there is no shortage of things and platforms to get us distracted. The key to getting things done is to re-align your priorities, see the end in mind, be compassionate with yourself and continue to show up day in day out.
All the Best in your quest to get Better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.