The myth about multitasking
“To do two things at once is to do neither.” – Publius Syrus (1st century BC)
What a buzzword—multitask! It’s like a badge of honor that we proudly strut among colleagues and friends. In a culture where our time is valued more than anything, we’re all trying to find ways to get a little more crammed into our 168-hour week. Technology, as handy and helpful as it is, makes that façade look even a little more real as you sit in on a meeting, scan the internet, and text your wife about dinner plans. We give the impression that we’re multitasking and getting two things done in the same amount of time that we were previously only able to get one thing done. “Appearing” that productive boosts the ego. But, are we really doing two (or three or four) things at once? Being the bearer of reality now, the answer to that question is “No.” Multitasking is not a function that your mind can handle.
To put it bluntly, multitasking is a myth. You’re deluding yourself if you think you can. We mistake busyness and movement for achievement. You’re tired, you’ve used a lot of energy, so you must’ve gotten a lot done—what an illusion! Riding on a stationary bike gets you tired and uses a lot of energy, but you don’t get anywhere. Research done at multiple reputable facilities (University of Michigan, Vanderbilt University, MIT, Stanford University) has consistently come to the same conclusion—your brain cannot multitask. In fact, you’re actually accomplishing less when you try to!
When you think you’re multitasking, what’s actually happening is that your brain is switching back and forth, back and forth, back and forth very rapidly from one thing to the other, trying to accomplish two things at once. Your brain is wired to think about one thing at a time, disengaging from the first activity before engaging in the next. God made the brain to be an orderly organ that operates sequentially.
One area of your brain is switched on as you deal with issue #1. When you go to issue #2, the area of the brain dealing with issue #1 switches off, and then the area dealing with issue #2 switches on. Think of it this way—the light is on in your bedroom where you’re folding clothes. You decide to feed the dog, turning out the light in the bedroom, moving to the kitchen and turning on the light there in order to get the dog food out of the pantry. When the dog is fed, you go back to the bedroom, turning out the light in the kitchen on the way, turning the light back on in the bedroom as you enter, and return to folding clothes. It’s pretty obvious that you’ve wasted a lot of time and energy by feeding the dog in the middle of folding the clothes! It’s the same thing when you try to multitask.
Multitasking becomes a much bigger problem when you’ve got a complex decision to make, a strategy to come up with, or a project that requires concentration and processing. Constant interruptions to your focus will increase the amount of time that it takes to come to a resolution or define the plan. A much better strategy is to focus on one task at a time. I’m reminded of a line from the sitcom M.A.S.H. where Major Winchester says, “I do one thing at a time, I do it very well, and then I move on.”
CONSEQUENCES of trying to multitask.
It stifles your creativity. To tap into creativity, you have to be able to focus. Ideas often come by being able to look at one thing for an extended amount of time in order to see it in a new light. When an idea comes, an interruption or failure to flesh it out right then can result in the original vision being lost.
It causes stress. All that hopping back and forth is tiring! When you try to multitask, MRIs show that the brain becomes very tired and stressed. Multitasking is readily associated with stress, and a feeling of being overwhelmed, fatigued, frazzled, and weary. Rightly so! Your brain is working harder than it needs to and it’s tired! Each time you move back and forth between cognitive and intellectual activities, there’s a delay time to refocus and reorient to the competing task. It’s no surprise then that people who try to multitask succumb to anger issues more quickly. They’re tired … they’re stressed … and they blow!
You make more mistakes. When your thoughts go back and forth, there’s a readjustment time, which causes delayed reactions. There’s nowhere that this is more obvious than on our roadways. The number of accidents that happen because someone attempts to multitask—texting or talking on the phone while driving—is equal to the number of accidents that happen to the person who has consumed alcohol past the legal limit. Why? Because that split second that it takes for the brain to reorient between tasks delays your reaction.
It damages relationships. When you’re trying to have a conversation and the other person is checking emails, how does that make you feel? They can tell you that you’re important, but their actions say that the email is more important. Cell phones at the dinner table or in a restaurant are major multitasking relationship hazards. When you take a call from an unidentified caller while having dinner with friends, the message you’re sending is, “I have no idea who this is or what they want, but right now they’re more important than whatever we could be sharing.” Additionally, if 55 percent of the meaning of communication comes from facial expressions, then we’re missing a lot when we’re taking a call or texting.
It wastes time. Completing individual tasks actually takes longer when you try to multitask than if you approached them one at a time. You have to keep revisiting the original task to take in the information again, because you lacked focus the first time. According to Dr. Medina, renowned researcher on multitasking, people who are interrupted take 50 percent more time to complete a project.
You lose focus. Each time you move back and forth, it’s like the brain is saying, “Now, where was I? Let me call up that file again.” Have you ever tried to carry on a conversation in a restaurant where the music is turned up, waiters are singing “Happy Birthday”, and you have to yell to the person sitting next to you? It’s difficult to focus when all that’s going on. Multitasking increases the mental noise and causes loss of focus.
It’s harmful to your IQ. According to Prof. Miller from MIT, another of the leading researchers on this topic, attempting to multitask can lower your IQ by 10 points. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have 10 points to give away!
Multitasking is a bad habit, an addiction of sorts. So, what’s the 12-Step program that can get us back on the right track?
- Admit you have a problem. Yep, “My name is _____ and I’m addicted to the myth of multitasking.” The first thing you have to do is to admit that you’re not doing anyone any good by trying to multitask. Then, commit to do something about it.
- Recognize your high-functioning times of the day. Approach projects that need intense times of focus when you are most alert and fresh.
- Choose your priorities. Go through your projects and decide which needs to be addressed first.
- Improve your focus. Address one thing at a time. Guard it!
- Get rid of the noise. Turn off the email and phone alerts. Turn off music that you know the words to. Don’t have the TV on when you’re trying to get something done.
- Create a technology schedule. Limit the amount of time you spend with technology (Facebook, email, texting). Designate one or two times a day when you will check emails.
- Organize your day. Create chunks in your day where you deal with one project in 60-90 minute chunks.
- Make detailed lists. Once you break your day into chunks; then, list each thing that needs to be done under that category. Stay with the topic of that chunk.
- Build in breaks. Set a timer to remind you that it’s time for a break. Your 60 or 90-minute session is done. Your brain needs to be refreshed. Take a walk around the building, grab a snack, do some stretching exercises.
- Limit interruptions. Do something to signal that co-workers are not to interrupt you. “If my door is closed, please don’t disturb me. If it’s open, then feel free to come on in.” Return calls at a designated time.
- Indulge in self-talk. When you’re tempted to let your mind wander instead of focusing on what you’re doing, mentally talk to yourself and say, “I’ll get to that later. I’m going to stay on task with this right now.”
- Celebrate! Celebrate how much you’ve gotten done. Hang of sign of congratulations over your computer. Mark things off so you can visually see the progress being made.
If you want to get the most done in the amount of time you have and do quality work, then multitasking does not serve you well. Attempting to do so actually diminishes the amount of work you’re capable of accomplishing. Ironically, what we think is making us more effective is actually making us less effective, because your mental clarity has been compromised.