Is multitasking a myth?
The pace of modern digital life can make it easy to think we all happily multitask most of the time. But do we really? Here, we consider the concept of doing more than one thing at a time – and why it may not be as productive as we believe or hope.
Arguably, one of the key reasons why multitasking is a myth is that it doesn’t even exist. That’s because, while you think you may be being productive and effective, and that your brain can handle more than one thing at a time, the reality is that it probably can’t.
In truth, when you think you’re multitasking, what you are really doing is switching between tasks. You’re not actually following a meeting while replying to an email or writing a report while reading a text – in fact, what you’re doing is jumping between tasks at lightning speed. And this can be a considerable drain on your time and energy.
According to research by web and mobile work management platform Asana, nearly three-quarters of workers (72%) feel under pressure to multitask during the working day. Yet, as cognitive neuroscientist, Dr Sahar Yousef of the University of California, Berkeley, said: “In reality, you’re rapidly switching from one task to another, and then back again. Every time you switch, you pay a ‘tax’ on both your time and energy. For that reason, it’s almost always more important to monotask. Focus on one thing and don’t pay switching taxes.”
So, essentially, we’re a lot better at thinking we’re adept at multitasking than we really are because we underestimate the mental effort involved in jumping between different jobs.
This subject was taken up recently by Arianna Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post and now CEO of Thrive Global. In a LinkedIn post, she wrote:
“Studies have found that multitasking can cause productivity to drop (by) as much as 40%: so when we are multitasking, we are actually doing multiple things in a suboptimal way.”
Huffington asked her followers how they focused to give a single task their undivided attention, in a poll which garnered 33,432 votes. Nearly half (49%) said they made a list of their top priorities.
Rather less (40%) reported scheduling time for deep work as their preferred way of focusing on one thing without skipping from one task to another. If you’re unfamiliar with this concept, ‘deep work’ refers to a state of intense concentration aimed at maximising focus and creativity. Computer science professor Cal Newport first coined the term. Microsoft co-founder and deep work devotee Bill Gates famously uses it twice a year when he retreats to a forest cabin to read and think, with nothing for company but a stack of idea pitches (on paper) from employees.
Small minorities of respondents to Huffington’s poll had other ideas for focusing on one job. A mere 5% said they would ‘be OK with incompletions’, while a similar number (6%) said they would leave their phone in a different room in order to concentrate on the task at hand. (Indeed, research in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research reveals that doing just that can noticeably help increase brain function – a fact well worth remembering when you’re revising for exams!)Considering the concept of doing many things at once as opposed to focusing on one task. Click To Tweet
What can I do to increase my chances of successfully monotasking?
We’ve previously written about the famed Pomodoro technique. Here are a few other things you can try:
With this time-management strategy, you focus on completing work promptly. Create a timebox by deciding how long a particular task should take – one task per timebox. Ignore all distractions until that period of time elapses and the task is done. This approach helps ensure you complete one task properly before starting a new one.
This is a similar technique. But rather than giving each job a timebox, you group tasks that are similar to each other into one time block and complete all items within it. It could mean, for example, scheduling an hour to handle all emails twice a day, rather than being constantly distracted when you leave your inbox open.
Or if you’re preparing for exams, first decide on your revision topics or priorities then ring-fence time to spend on each one in this way. Similar subjects or tasks can be grouped together.
Turn off other alerts, too, and activate any ‘Do not disturb’ notifications you can.
We all know it’s important to prioritise. But with MITs or Most Important Tasks, you simply clarify what your most important jobs are for any one day, and only relax when they’re done. When Dr Yousef (mentioned above) and his team launched a three-week challenge around MIT setting, they found that productivity rose by more than a quarter (28%) across the board.
In the face of all the above evidence, it’s worth thinking twice next time you’re tempted to flick open a newly arrived email when you’re on a crucial deadline or to read information you’re trying to commit to memory while watching your favourite TV show.