No Such Thing As Multitasking
While serving in the military for almost 23 years, I interacted on several occasions with human factors engineers, primarily in the aviation environment. In short, human factors engineers focus on how systems work in practice, with real and fallible human beings at the controls. They then attempt to design systems that optimize safety and minimize the risk of error in complex environments. One comment I heard time and again is there is no such thing as multitasking, especially within a complex environment.
Multiple studies over the years have confirmed that true multitasking, doing more than one task at the same time with the same level of focus, is both a myth and cognitively impossible. Many believe they can split their attention equally between multiple tasks and thus get more done. What really occurs is they accomplish less and more often increase stress.
Why do so many people continue to spend so much time trying to multitask? Is it bad for us? What can we do to better focus our attention and time on single tasks and thus accomplish more?
What is multitasking?
Although we tend to do multiple things at the same time throughout our day, these are not true multitasking’s. Most people can walk and chew gum, drive and sing, or write and enjoy background music. These are noted as simple task pairings using separate areas of the brain.
Therefore, simply defining the act of multitasking as doing two or more difficult things at once isn’t entirely accurate. According to “The Ultimate Guide to Getting More Done by Doing Less,” there are three forms of multitasking we need to be aware of.
Multitasking — attempting to do two or more tasks simultaneously with equal success.
Many people think of multitasking as trying to simply do two or more things at once. An example may be the administrative assistant who is taking multiple calls, dealing with in-person customers, and filing. Most of us multitask by keeping email and IM open while we write reports, design a product, or code a piece of software, all at the same time. In doing so, we think we are equally balancing all tasks and consequently getting more done.
A study by RescueTime pulling data from 50,000 users, found that the average worker spends 40.1% of their productive time a day multitasking with communication tools alone. As Dr. Meyer shares, splitting attention between tasks that require concentration results in all tasks suffering.
“Once you start to make things more complicated, things get messier, and as a result, there’s going to be interference with one or more of the tasks. Either you’re going to have to slow down on one of the tasks, or you’re going to start making mistakes.”
Context Switching — switching back and forth between tasks, with the belief more is getting done in finite period of time.
Our brains aren’t wired to do two things at once. What many think is “multitasking” is simply bouncing back and forth between tasks. What happens with all this switching back and forth? We feel as if we a switching so fast that more is getting done in a shorter period of time. The reality is although it takes only a tenth of a second to switch, it take more time for your brain to reboot to the place it left off from your previous switch to and from the task. In addition, studies show that this frequent switching can drain up to 20% of your brains productive energy, which impact both the amount of work accomplished and quality. However, it has been noted that regardless of this proven decrease in productivity, most people switch between tasks every three minutes.
Attention Residue — performing a number of tasks in rapid succession, again believing more is being accomplished with adequate focus.
Few people know of or discuss this form of multitasking. This could be demonstrated by picturing the employee who goes through their to-do list at a rapid speed in order to accomplish all on the list in a set period of time. Hence, driven by the accomplishment of tasks and not the quality of the product or performance. This is often mistaken for multitasking.
Each time we switch activities, we force our brain’s executive functions or higher level cognitive functions (part that manages how, when, and in what order you do tasks) to go through two energy-draining steps. The first is goal shifting which is the act of determining which activity is more important than another. The second is role activation, which is the act of your brain changing the rule sets within the context of the previous task versus the new task. These steps are very taxing on the brain.
Harvard psychologist Matthew Killingsworth suggest that people spend up to 47% of waking hours thinking about things other than the task they are currently working. As such, this shifting drains energy needed to most optimally perform the primary task at hand.
“The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost,” Matthew Killingsworth.
Professor Sophie Leroy says this “attention residue” results from lingering thoughts that remain after we have moved from one task to another, even if the first task was completed.
All three aforementioned multitasking’s have an impact on our ability to accomplish tasks successfully and efficiently. What’s fascinating is that this way of performing tasks is so deeply ingrained in our psyche and is the model for how perform both in recreational and work environments. Psychology professor, David Meyer from the University of Michigan states we don’t possess the brainpower to conduct true multitasking.
“… as long as you’re performing complicated tasks that require the same parts of the brain, and you need to devote all that capacity for these tasks. There aren’t going to be resources available to add anything more.”
What are the impacts on our brain?
Many studies have found that this excessive multitasking has consequences on our mental and physical health such as:
· Impacts your short-term memory: A 2011 research study from the University of California San Francisco found multitasking negatively impacts your working memory — your brain’s “Scratchpad” used to manage and focus on key information.
· Leads to increased anxiety: Neuroscientists say that multitasking literally drains your mind’s energy reserves, causing you to lose focus and become more anxious.
· Inhibits creative thinking: Added anxiety and a lack of brain “space” caused by multitasking can also cause you to lose your ability to think outside the box. To be creative, our minds need space to digest or “incubate” new ideas.
· Causes more mistakes and less productivity: Multiple studies have found that multitasking causes people to take longer to do simple tasks, drop your IQ by an average of 10 points, and can even have the same negative impact as losing a night’s sleep.
These multitasking impacts have an affect all aspects of our lives. For example, within the workplace, the RescueTime study also found most people can’t go for more than 6 minutes without checking their digital tools. On average, 35.5% of workers check their email and IM every 3 minutes or less. 70% of people keep their inbox open all day and less than 20% have any sort of plan to deal with email. Even more interesting is most people believe this behavior is completely normal.
This “normal” behavior makes filtering out information that is truly important and/or relevant very difficult for most. Stanford researcher Clifford wrote:
“When they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal.”
How do we change this trend and regain a single-task focus?
If we want to accomplish tasks with higher quality, in less time, using more cognitive energy, it’s important that we learn how to focus on a single task through completion. Here’s why:
- Single-tasking produce less stress. When you expend extra energy trying to multitask, you end up exhausted and behind on work. However, when you focus on one thing at a time, you’re more likely to get into a smooth flow, finish what you begin, and, lower your workplace stress levels.
- Single-tasking makes you focus on what you “should” do (not what you “could” do). With attention spans declining, this is important. Selecting a task to place all your attention for a set period of time means consciously avoiding other tasks when they pop in front of us. This helps prioritize and direct our focus.
· It is proven that doing one thing at a time can enhance creativity. Focusing on a single-task may appear limiting, But the fact is it can boost our creativity.
How to reduce our multitasking mind-set?
Create a daily schedule
A daily schedule is a roadmap for the day. It tells you what your intentions are and holds you accountable to them. It can also help you remain focused on priorities established before the day’s unexpected events begin. It will be your first line of defense against multitasking.
Schedule non-negotiable time for “focused work” at the start of the day. This can be as short as 15–20 minutes or as long as 90 minutes. The goal is simply to start rebuilding your ability to focus on a task at hand without distraction.
Limit your email time with scheduled blocks of time
Throughout the day, one of the biggest contributors to multitasking is your email. Communication time eats into everything we do. And because it feels productive, we don’t really think of it as multitasking. But it is.
Start by limiting your time on email and creating blocks of time throughout the day to view mail. Turn off notifications so you aren’t easily distracted by incoming mail. Remember, email is “mail.” In the days before electronic mail, we only opened and read our inbound mail once per day.
Block other distracting electronic sites and notifications
External distractions like notifications can cause us to multitask (more accurately, task-distract), but so can boredom. When we feel bored or anxious, we’re more likely to procrastinate or “just check a website or our Facebook really quickly.”
To protect yourself from distractions, use a digital manager like FocusTime or at specific points of the day where you know your energy and motivation are low.
As our lives and the workplace gets busier and more distracting due to incoming information, the ability to sit down and focus for an extended period of time will become one of the most sought-after skills of any employee. I can tell you as an employer, this is one of the key traits I look for in a new employee.
Our days will continue to be filled with incoming notifications, digital noise, and distractions, couple by a shrinking attention span. Multitasking exasperates this and growing expectations of ourselves and by others feeds this.
Our challenge is to manage the influx of information and reduce distraction to allow our brain to single-focus on tasks while using the maximum amount of energy for creativity and problem-solving.
A growing challenge indeed.