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The Myth of Multitasking: Doing More Is Dumbing Us Down

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Envision the always-on millennial, iPhone in one hand, switching effortlessly between emails and business reports on a laptop in the other. A vision of productivity in this wondrous age of digital technology, right? Wrong. They are seriously dumbing themselves down. Have you ever felt the triumph of control that comes with doing several things at once? Don’t be fooled by that euphoric feeling—it’s all a trick. Multitasking is a myth.

Think you’re good at doing several tasks at the same time? Reading and listening to music? Doing email in meetings? Driving while talking on the phone (hands free of course)? Neuroscience research shows that the brain is physically incapable of multitasking. Instead, we are switching tasks quickly—a start/stop process is going on in our brain. And as we switch, withdrawing our attention from one task to another, this creates a split-second in which the brain is in no-man’s land. It’s called a post-refractory pause. Think of it like a train switching tracks: as it leaves one track when the switch is thrown, for a second it is between tracks before lurching onto the other track. This start/ stop/start process is rough on us; rather than saving time, it costs time (even very small micro seconds). It can feel as though we are losing control. It’s also less efficient. Tasks become harder, and we make more mistakes. Multitasking is the science of screwing several things up at once. And over time it can be energy-sapping.

A crisis of energy

Tony Schwartz, president and CEO of The Energy Project, calls this a personal energy crisis. As the demands of technology increase, we expect our capacity to deal with it to increase. But the pace is unsustainable. The greater the performance demand, the greater the need to nurture recovery—to rest, reset, and recharge. “Human beings aren’t designed to run like computers: at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time. By mimicking them, they’re ending up running us,” he writes. The reality is we simply can’t talk on the phone, read email, send an instant message, and watch YouTube videos all at the same time. Instead of cruising down the information superhighway, we’re stepping on the gas and then hitting the brakes, over and over. The stop/start process reduces our IQ by as much as 10 points, causes mental blanks, and reduces our productivity by 40 percent, according to Dr. Julia Irwin, senior lecturer in psychology at Sydney, Australia’s Macquarie University. Multitasking makes us stupid.

Don’t believe me? Take a small test that I ask the attendees in my high-performance workshops to try:

Draw two horizontal lines on a piece of paper. Now, have someone time you as you carry out the two tasks that follow:

On the first line, write:

I am a great multitasker

On the second line: write out the numbers 1-20 sequentially, like this:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

How much time did it take to do the two tasks? Usually it’s about twenty seconds.

Now, let’s get multitasking. Draw two more horizontal lines. This time, again having someone time you, you’re going to write the same two lines, but you’ll do it a bit differently. Write the first letter on one line, and then the first number on the line below, then the next letter in the sentence on the upper line, and then the next number in the sequence, switching from line to line.

So, you write the letter “I” on the top line, and then the number “1” on the bottom line. Then switch back to the top line and write the letter “a” and then the number “2” on the bottom line and so on, until you complete both lines. I am… 1 2 3…

How did it go that time? On average, my workshop attendees’ time is double or more what it was on the first round. You possibly also made some errors, and you were probably frustrated since you had to “rethink” what the next letter would be, and then the next number. This same exercise works on something as simple as reciting the alphabet and counting from 1 to 26. It doesn’t matter how simple the task is, or how much muscle memory we have in performing it. Switch-tasking on something very simple or something often more complex at the same time makes any task more difficult, it takes longer, and it confounds our brains.

A summary of research examining multitasking on the American Psychological Association’s website describes how so-called multitasking is neither effective nor efficient. The findings demonstrate that when we shift focus from one task to another, that transition is neither fast nor smooth. Instead, there is a lag time during which our brain must wrench itself from the initial task and then grab onto the new task. Remember the train switching tracks? This shift takes time (up to 40 percent more time than single/mono-tasking). The results are consistent for children doing their homework while watching TV to employees who show greater productivity when they don’t check their email frequently.

Choose your distractions

If we subscribe to the single-tasking approach, then we must choose our distractions carefully. Distractions come in all shapes and sizes, and often without warning. Some of the usual culprits that distract us no matter what time of day it is are email and social media. Of course, that inbox isn’t going to clear itself out, so we have to consciously decide when to tackle it. Instead of reacting to emails as they come into our inbox, turning off the email notification alert and scheduling a few times during the day when we are not at our most productive or energetic is a perfect time for this kind of work. Checking in on social-media feeds once in a while as opposed to throughout the day will also free up significant periods of time that can be used more productively.

Time of day also has an impact on our productivity. Some of us are more productive first thing in the morning, whereas others may like to ease into high-energy tasks later in the day. Creating a routine and following it consistently creates physiological energy spikes that can fuel us to power through a task. The repetition of the routine focuses the mind and trains our brains to reproduce that focus and keep us operating at our peak. Peak times are different for each of us. The key is finding yours and using it to get to your flow state. As Somerset Maugham says, “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

If we are immersed in a task that demands a great deal of cognitive energy, it can take up to fifteen minutes to get back to the same level of immersion in that task after being distracted. When we are in a state where our work is flowing seamlessly, and we feel both challenged and capable, we’re far more likely to deliver an outstanding result. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow, flow is “the optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” The passage of time is unnoticed as we are completely immersed and present in what we are doing. It is this state that enables the most progress on any task and delivers satisfaction for a job well done. But this only happens if we can resist the urge to check things like email, social media, text messages, etc

Give yourself the gift of presence

We all deal with distractions. In an increasingly connected world, it’s difficult to put down the device and focus on only one conversation, one interaction, or one task. Next time you’re tempted, I invite you to give yourself the gift of single-tasking for a limited time instead, perhaps fifteen minutes, and see if you can complete the task better and faster, with energy left to spare. Being truly present is about mindfulness and it is in that moment that we can harness our productivity and creativity. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, “With mindfulness, you can establish yourself in the present in order to touch the wonders of life that are available in that moment.” If we’re not paying attention, we may miss what really matters.

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