In my last post I discussed multitasking as something to avoid. I pulled one quote and one experiment to show that multitasking was bad and then moved on with my point.
As a lawyer, I feel the need to double back and support my argument. While many of you agreed, I recognize that I have not actually done the work to convince you that multitasking is, in fact, bad for productivity.
Everyone does it these days. There is so much going on and so many different sources of media that you can’t always help it.
Plus, aren’t you getting more done by doing multiple things at once? Doesn’t squeezing more things into the same time slot mean that you can accomplish more?
Well, no. And here’s why:
What Is Multitasking?
When you are multitasking, you are not really doing two things at once. Instead, you are engaged in a process called cognitive switching, in which your brain bounces back and forth between the different tasks very quickly.
So while you feel like you are talking on the phone while writing an email, you are actually paying attention to the call and ignoring your email and then ignoring your conversation while you pay attention to your email and back and forth and back and forth.
And this is all fine, except that there is a penalty attached to this cognitive switching.
An American Psychological Association paper explains the costs involved with switching focus with this example:
“A student who has completed her math homework and is ready to begin her English homework must first decide that she is done with math and ready to begin English (goal shifting) and then turn off the rules of addition and multiplication and activate the rules for reading a story (rule activation).”
This switch happens so quickly that we don’t usually think about it. According to University of Michigan researchers, it takes only a few tenths of a second. This is quick enough that we don’t notice, but long enough to cause problems if we are constantly switching.
Multitasking Makes You Less Productive and More Error-Prone
An experiment out of Central Connecticut State University studied students who were reading while using Instant Messenger and compared them to students who were reading without distractions.
Obviously the students using IM took longer to read. The more interesting part is that they took longer to read the passage even if you only count the time that they were actually reading! 25 percent longer, in fact. The cognitive switching penalty, that split second readjustment, ended up adding a huge amount of time.
In The Personal MBA, Josh Kaufman discusses the cognitive switching penalty and the extra time it causes you to lose. “That’s why it’s possible to spend an entire day multitasking, get nothing done, and feel exhausted at the end – you’ve burned all of your energy context-switching instead of making progress.”
We’ve all felt that before at the end of a long day. That feeling that we were working all day, feel completely exhausted, but can’t really say what we got done.
And if we think about it, we’ve probably noticed the cognitive switching penalty itself. Think about a time when you’ve tried to write an email while talking on the phone. Or participated in an in-person conversation with someone while checking Twitter. You slow down. There’s more of a beat in between responses in your conversation. You get lost easily.
A lot of research has been done in this area around the issue of talking on the phone or texting while driving. Many states have banned texting while driving and forced drivers to switch to hands-free phone calls. But this misidentifies the problem.
The problem is not that people’s hands are off the wheel or their eyes are off the road (although those are obviously not great), but rather that people’s minds are switching back and forth between the road and the conversation.
Turns out, hands-free phone calls and texting while driving is actually not any safer than calling and texting the old fashioned way.
But I’m Different!
“Maybe most people can’t multitask,” you may be thinking, “But I can.”
This is not an uncommon response to seeing the evidence against multitasking. “I’ve seen all of the evidence, but I know my own experience, and multitasking has worked for me.”
As one neuroscientist said about this, “The brain is very good at deluding itself.” (Too harsh? Hey, I didn’t say it…)
The studies have looked into this as well. Experimenters wanted to find out whether the people who are most confident in their multitasking, who do it the most and are pretty much experts at it, are better at it than the rest of us.
And the counter-intuitive finding is that they are actually even worse at it.
The more you build the habit of multitasking, the worse you get at focusing and the higher your cognitive switching penalty climbs.
The better you think you are at multitasking, the more your multitasking is actually hurting your productivity.
How to Improve
Okay, so…that sucks. We think we’re being more and more productive and we’re actually getting less and less productive. Not only that, but we are retraining our minds to make productivity even harder.
So what do we do?
Well step one is to take a step back. See the big picture. Prioritize. What is the most important thing that needs to get done? Do that thing first.
In the book The One Thing, the authors recommend starting each day by asking “What is the one thing you can do today, such that by doing it everything else will be made easier or unnecessary?”
Does one thing seem too small for you? On a recent episode of the Smart Passive Income Podcast, Chris Bailey recommended starting your day by picking three things that, if you completed them, your day would feel like a success. Make sure those three things get done before you dive into the morass of minutia that tends to overwhelm our day.
Train Your Mind
We’ve trained our minds to multitask, so let’s do the work to bring them back to a more productive state.
One way to work on this is through meditation. Meditation can help you increase your focus, avoid multitasking, and decrease stress. If that’s not enough of a sales pitch, then I don’t know what would be (although you can read my prior article on meditation for even more benefits).
Cal Newport in his book Deep Work recommends training our minds by embracing boredom. He suggests scheduling Internet-free blocks into our day and sticking to them. If we are bored during an Internet-free block, we cannot pull out our phones and start playing around or checking Twitter. Instead, we need to wait through the end of the block and be alone with our thoughts.
In this way we slowly train our mind not to expect the instant gratification that comes with constant connectivity. This will allow us to build focus over time and be better able to complete important work and be more productive.
Adjust Your Environment
Retraining our minds is a long and hard process. We need something to do in the meantime.
Adjusting our environment is a much easier way to increase productivity and decrease multitasking than retraining our minds.
Try silencing your phone. If your phone buzzes or beeps any time you get an email or a Twitter mention, you will be pulled from your task and risk seduction by multitasking constantly. Remove that risk.
Similarly, if you can do your work without the Internet and/or without your email window open, give that a try. It is very easy to get off-track online and your email window provides a constant distraction similar to your phone.
One other environmental adjustment that I have found helpful is to keep a notepad by my desk. If something pops into my head, whether it is something I need to do or something that I need to think about, I can write it down. This gives my mind permission to let go of it for now without worrying that any balls will be dropped. It is a simple act, and I don’t have the research at this point to understand why it works, but it works very well.
Multitasking is a tough habit to break, so let’s gather our tools and tricks and get to work.
Do you have any tricks that I’ve missed? Share them with us in the comments!