How You’re Killing Your Own Productivity

We’re spending the month of March exploring time management and how to optimize it.

On Tuesday, we looked at sleep. Cutting back on sleep seems intuitively like a good way to increase productivity, but actually makes things worse.

Today’s topic is similar.

When we struggle to get as much as we want done, we often fall back on multitasking.

Like sleeping less, this makes intuitive sense, but ends up hurting us according to the data.

Multitasking is Not Real

It’s hard to argue against the idea that doing two things at once saves time.

The problem is that when we multitask, we’re not actually doing two things at once.

Instead, research shows that we are engaged in a process called cognitive switching. While we feel like we are doing two things at the same time, in reality, our brains our bouncing back and forth between the different tasks very quickly.

If I am talking on the phone while writing an email, I cannot actually give my attention to both things at the same time. Instead, I am focusing on the call and ignoring the email and then focusing on the email and ignoring the call.

You cannot give your attention to two tasks at the same time.

Even when listening to the radio while driving your car, multitasking that everyone does, your focus is switching back and forth between the road and the music.

And this is all fine, except that there is a penalty attached to this cognitive switching.

The Cognitive Switching Penalty

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.

A few tenths of a second doesn’t feel like much of a problem. However, when we’re switching back and forth every few seconds (or more) this can add up quickly.

Wasting Time

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.

Talking and Driving

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.

Studies have confirmed this. When you are talking on the phone, even a hands-free phone, you are less likely to notice and react to hazards and you have a smaller field of peripheral vision.

Turns out, hands-free phone calls are not actually any safer than calling and texting the old fashioned way.

Training Your Brain

The problem goes beyond just the actual time you spend multitasking. You train your brain that task-switching is normal and your brain keeps doing it even when you don’t want it to.

Once you start multitasking, your brain starts getting chronically distracted. Even when you are trying to focus on a single task, your brain is looking for something to switch its attention to. You’ve trained it to function that way.

This is an aspect of multitasking that people tend to miss.

Even when people recognize that multitasking is bad, they believe that they can turn it off and on at will. People regularly tell experimenters that when needed they can turn everything else off and focus.

But experiments show that they are wrong.

People that spend much of their time multi-tasking are unable to properly single-task when called for. They think they can just turn on the focus at show time, but they can’t.

Are You a Good Multitasker?

“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.”

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.

Retraining Your Brain

Okay, so multitasking is bad.

Great…how do we stop?

Teaching ourselves not to multitask is not easy or quick.

We’ve trained our minds to multitask, so we need to do the work to train them back to a more productive state.

One way to work on this is through meditation. Meditation can help you increase your focusavoid 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.

Both of these exercises slowly train our mind not to expect the instant gratification that comes with constant connectivity and distraction. 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 some tricks to help us along 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.

Join the Conversation!

Do you have a multitasking problem? Do you think you’re better at it that most? Have you found a good way to avoid it? Let us know in the comments!

9 thoughts on “How You’re Killing Your Own Productivity”

  1. This is great. I know you’re right. I’m a terrible multitasker. Even knowing that fact, it does not stop me from trying. In fact, once I started reading this post I paused the podcast I was listening to. It really did help me focus. I think this is pretty easy improvement to try and implement. I’ll start today!
    Jason@WinningPersonalFinance recently posted…Does Your Car Cost You Millions?My Profile

    1. When I was at home I used to work and write with the TV on in the background. It was just sort of background noise and I didn’t think I was paying much attention to it. Once I decided to try shutting it off, I realized that I was getting stuff done so much more quickly. The immediate impact of single tasking is huge and it just gets better the more you do it!

      Thanks, Jason!
      Matt recently posted…Sleep Your Way to the TopMy Profile

  2. Have you ever been driving, and can’t recall stopping at a stop sign or at a traffic light? Sometimes we are just so lost in thought with other things that we don’t recall. Multitasking is overrated. When I have multiple tasks to complete. I try and tackle them by priority. Focusing on the top and working my way down. If I’m working on my computer, I shut down email, social media etc to avoid being distracted or tempted to jump over to something else.
    Brian recently posted…How A Poor Credit Score Can Ruin Your RetirementMy Profile

    1. That’s a great example. I’ve found myself arriving at the wrong destination before. I must have gone on autopilot and stopped paying attention at some point after getting in the car and my muscle memory just drove me somewhere that I often went rather than where I was trying to go.

      Thanks for stopping by, Brian!
      Matt recently posted…Sleep Your Way to the TopMy Profile

  3. Another great post, Matt, you’re prolific!

    I think embracing single-tasking is one of the highest yield productivity gains to be made. Imagine what could be done if truly focused on one thing at a time.

    Do you have suggestions for those of us whose workplaces aren’t conducive? I have been closing my office door lately, trying to maintain my headspace, but other people don’t like me doing so 😉
    Mark recently posted…The Productivity Podcasts I Listen to Each Week (2018 edition)My Profile

    1. I’ve definitely been there and it can be tricky. I’ve found that part of it is just resetting expectations. I have my door open during certain hours and closed during certain hours. People were annoyed by this at first, but now they recognize that if they need me they should stop by while my door is open rather than whenever something comes to mind.

      Thanks, Mark.
      Matt recently posted…Sleep Your Way to the TopMy Profile

  4. Very interesting, Matt. For years I fooled myself into believing that I needed to be an accomplished multitasker. I mean, for at least 10 years now, employers have been billing multitasking as a huge workplace requirement. But I was never good at it. I’m glad science is now giving me an out. Maybe I’m not such a loser after all. Cheers, my friend.
    Mr. Groovy recently posted…Taxes and Obamacare and Sasha and Talking TrashMy Profile

  5. Thanks for the tips. I used to try to multitask, but it killed my productivity. I now try to do focused sprints of work (about 20 mins) with a break in between. The key for me is having a clear idea of what I would like to accomplish, and focus for the entire time on one task. This has helped me quite a bit.

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