The word “multitasking” seems ubiquitous these days, especially in the business world. In fact, prior to writing this article I did a search for jobs in New York via Indeed.com to see how many of the listed positions included the term – 811 of them did.
Unfortunately, despite our obsession with the concept, multitasking is not well suited to human beings, ie you and me.
A computer concept applied to people
Did you know that the term multitasking was actually first used to describe a capability of computers? In a 1966 issue of Datamation magazine—a riveting read, I’m sure—you’ll find the following first instance: “Multi-tasking is defined as the use of a single CPU for the simultaneous processing of two or more jobs.” Ah, the simultaneous processing of two or more jobs, any employer’s dream. It’s no wonder it’s become such an omnipresent buzz word in job descriptions.
The thing is, we’re not computers
Despite your ability to walk down the street while talking to a new client on your iPhone, texting your BFF, and navigating city pedestrian traffic, this does not make you a multitasking machine. Rather what is happening is rapid, quick changes in attention from one task to another, referred to as task-switching. So all though we feel like we’re doing multiple things at once, we’re really just doing one thing at a time rapidly—but not as rapidly as you’d like to think. With more and more devices and social media vying for our attention, it’s easy to fall into this delusional belief in our multitasking prowess. In a sweet twist of irony, a Stanford study found that those people who multitasked most often were subsequently found to be worse at it than those who did not multitask on a regular basis.
Multitasking is the art of doing lots of things less effectively
You only have a finite amount of productivity. For this reason, if you’re doing multiple things at the same time, you’re bound to be less productive, less accurate, and overall do a worse job. Switching between tasks takes time, whether you recognize it or not. And it’s not just about the switching, it’s also getting back into the flow of each individual activity.
You cannot give 110%. Seriously, it is impossible…
When I was in college, I spent a weekend learning performance driving techniques at Laguna Seca Raceway. The instructor taught us that the car has three main inputs: throttle, steering, and braking. All these inputs must add up to 100% to prevent losing control of the vehicle. For example, you cannot both slam on the brakes (100%) and turn ninety degrees to the right (100%) without the car skidding out in fog of burnt rubber. The point is to go fast (100% throttle), but you are limited by any braking or steering inputs.
Imagine you’re tackling a report with a strict deadline, but talking on the phone (25% attention) and checking your company’s social media stream (15%)—now you’re only really giving 60% to that report, no matter how productive you look to your boss and coworkers.
Still not convinced? Try this classic multitasking experiment.
Pull out your watch and time yourself doing the following activities.
Draw a line on a piece of paper.
Write the sentence, “I am a multitasking pro” on top of the line.
Then write out the following numbers below the line: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19
This took me 27 seconds.
Now, draw another line on the paper and try writing each of those lines in alternating sequence. So, “I” on top, then “1” below, then “a” on top, and “2” below, and so on. Again, time yourself.
This took me 53 seconds, almost exactly twice as long. The amazing thing about this exercise is that it makes you acutely aware of the toll task-switching takes on your brain. I constantly felt frustrated that I couldn’t just continue writing either the top or bottom lines sequentially.
Multitasking makes you dumber
And no, I don’t mean this figuratively. A University of London study showed that it can lower your IQ by up to 15 points, about the same as pulling an all nighter, taking a couple of rips off a bong, or reverting back to the mental capacity of your eight year old self. Not very inspiring when you think about how much of our days are spent multitasking.
Potential long-term negative effects of multitasking
Consistent multitasking could have a serious impact on your ability to focus. Unfortunately, the same neural plasticity that allows us to adapt positively to our environment allows us to train ourselves how to focus less. By rapidly switching between tasks, we train our brains to focus less deeply on things to allow us to switch gears more often.
You may think that you can just stop multitasking temporarily and get your focus back, but according to Stanford psychology professor Clifford Nass, “our brains are plastic but they’re not elastic. They don’t just snap back into shape.”
When questioned as to whether we can ever fully regain our focus, Nass goes on to say, “We would love to know. It’s very hard because frankly in the few studies we’ve tried to do it, people refuse. It’s almost impossible to get a group of people who believe their lives are built around multitasking to stop for two weeks to actually see whether their brains have changed.”
Beyond the ability to deeply focus, researchers at the University of Sussex have found that high level multitaskers may even be undergoing structural changes in their brains: “people who used a higher number of media devices concurrently also had smaller grey matter density in the part of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the region notably responsible for cognitive and emotional control functions.” Since it’s been shown that emotional intelligence(EQ) is a greater factor in determining people’s success than IQ, this is cause for alarm…or at least some serious consideration the next time you find yourself checking your Facebook feed, while chatting over the phone, binge watching Breaking Bad, and writing a status report for your boss.
Break the multitasking cycle
The opposite of multitasking is, well, single tasking. Revolutionary, right? To attain this feat, try blocking out time in your day for activities. If you know you have a tough report to write, allocate a couple of dedicated hours during the day where you don’t take calls, check email, or social media.
Awareness is another key. At various points throughout the day take inventory of the things that are clamoring for your attention and try to make a deliberate choice as to what you focus on. This also means learning to say “no” to both your devices and coworkers if it means keeping you more focused on an important task.
Another helpful technique is meditation, which has been clinically proven to improve focus. And no, you don’t have to bust out the incense and patchouli, just try sitting still and focusing on your breath for five minutes.
However you choose to address this growing issue of the multitasking myth is up to you, but it is essential for your own success. And to employers, instead of looking for rockstar multitaskers, start looking for hyper focusers instead. They’re a lot more productive in the long run.
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