Multitasking: Not Really a Good Idea

It’s pretty near impossible to operate on any given day without multitasking. With the explosion of technology, people have become used to talking on a cell phone while driving or walking, sitting at a desk and working on a paper and pencil task while glancing at email or tracking Facebook, cooking dinner and doing laundry at the same time, or any number of other scenarios that are familiar to us all.

We think very often that multitasking makes us more effective and is a good time management strategy, and it would seem that sometimes it is. If the washing machine is washing a load of clothes while I get dinner on the table, then my time later in the evening to dry and fold those clothes is reduced. This probably isn’t a bad strategy. But putting the clothes in the washer while I’m talking on the phone might be a bit more difficult, although not super taxing. Writing this blog while glancing at my email and listening to the news on the TV in the other room gets to be more difficult. Searching for my ringing cell phone in my purse while driving on a busy road is quite difficult, and quite dangerous I might add.

A fair amount of research has been done on multitasking, and the evidence is clear. It’s not a good idea, and better yet, it isn’t effective.

We don’t as a rule get things done faster or more effective when multitasking, and in fact, our productivity is reduced. Here’s why.

We Are Set Up to Focus on One Thing at a Time

Our brains are not really set up to multitask. Even if we are doing two things at one time, what we are in actuality doing is switching our attention back and forth between the two tasks.

If the tasks are simple and familiar, we are relying on our autopilot response to carry us through the switches back and forth. I’m sure you’ve tried the tricky one of rubbing your tummy in a circular motion with one hand while patting the top of your head with the other. It requires some intense concentration to do that, but if you break it down, we are actually switching our attention back and forth between the two motions in rapid succession to keep both of them going.

We do this kind of thing all the time, and some of the activities may be easier such as walking while talking on the phone. With this activity, we will likely get absorbed in the phone call and we can walk all right as long as the walking doesn’t require looking out for traffic, or avoiding bumping into furniture or other obstacles. If it’s a straight course on a sidewalk, we can probably manage it because the walking can be done on autopilot.

In most cases, both activities require attention and focus, and by switching back and forth, we lose effectiveness and stress ourselves out.

The more complex the task is, the greater the energy used to keep the switch mechanism going.

There is a cost to this. It requires time and energy, and rapid switching can greatly dilute our focus leading to a loss of productivity. Attention is most effective with a singular point of focus, and the more we try to dilute it among numbers of things, the less effective it is.

Switch Time

The switching mechanism described above is called “task-switch”, and it has two parts (Rubinstein, J., Evans, J & Meyer, D.E.). The first part is to make a decision to move from one task to another, which is called “goal shifting.” The second part is to switch off the rules for the task you were doing, and switch on the new rules for the task you are taking on. This is called “rule activation.”

An easy way to think about this is to imagine yourself engaged in a TV show in which you quite engrossed, and then someone tells you it’s time to come to the dinner table to eat. There is a mental process (and in this case an emotional process too) that requires you to first decide that you are going to comply with the request. Once you make that decision, you then have to emotionally and mentally disengage from the TV show, and then shift your attention to getting to the table to eat.

What’s important to understand is that this two-part shift requires time, and the time it requires is controlled by your brain more than it is by you. This means that the brain needs a specific amount of time to “task-switch” for each particular type of task and transition.

Some task switches take longer than others. Each has it’s own time, and if you try and move it along faster than the time it actually takes, you may miss something.

In other words, if the situation is pressured and the time allotted is not enough, your brain will still take the time. This is what happens when you glance down for a moment to find your ringing cell phone while driving. There is a second or seconds of time in which you are mentally in limbo. When you finally get through that limbo (or switch time), your car may be out of control.

Decreased Focus and Effectiveness

Because we don’t really do more than one task at a time, the energy and time required for multiple switching from one task to another actually slows us down and dilutes our focus.

If I get a cell phone call while writing this blog and I decide to answer it, when I come back to writing I will have to go through another whole emotional submersion process to get myself back into the mental space where I was when my mind was percolating along and there was a flow of successive thoughts and feelings that were working together to create the words on the page.

That time it takes to get back into the task, or the switch, is great in this case and may be impossible until another day. The same is true of many more complex tasks that require greater attention.

Creative tasks in particular are not well disposed to multi-tasking. In fact, productivity can be reduced up to 40% by multitasking, especially when more complex tasks are involved.

Multitasking is Stressful

Multitasking over time is like listening to chronic background noise that is dissonant. It requires energy to try and keep the brain functioning properly when something else is agitating it. That energy expenditure can be overwhelming, and the emotional response can manifest as feelings of being out of control, overwhelmed, anxious, irritable and over time, depressed. There is eventually a shutdown that occurs to turn off the stress meter.

How to Get Around Tt

We can’t always get around it, but often we lay it on ourselves. Here’s some quick ways to make improvements:

Attend to only one electronic device at a time.

If you are working on a task on your computer, close your email and shut off your phone (or put it on silence), iPad, iPod, or any other device you have. Do not have any other screens or windows open other than what you need to do your task. Keep it this way until you are finished or at a stopping point.

Create blocks of time for specific tasks.

Gary Keller in his book, The One Thing, calls this “time blocking.” If you are washing the car, or cooking dinner, or writing a blog, set aside the time you think you will need to do that and don’t engage in anything else at the same time including talking on the phone. Allow yourself to settle into the activity fully and focus. Not only will you accomplish more, it will be much more pleasant and gratifying.

Silence your phone in the car.

This really is the only way to totally focus on driving. If you really have to talk, pull off the road and talk and hang up before you start driving again.

Spend some time every week in silence.

If you like silence, you will relish this activity. If you feel uneasy without noise of some kind, you will find this difficult. That just means that you have trained yourself to need constant stimulation. You don’t, and you should be able to do without external stimulation for short periods of time. Quiet allows your mind to expand and your system to relax.

Consciously practice doing one thing at a time.

Do this as often as you can on a daily basis. If you actively pursue this, you will find that your whole experience of time changes as does your sense of accomplishment. It will be less stressful.

Limit multitasking to easy things.

I may cook dinner and do laundry at the same time, but actually I am fully engaged in cooking dinner and taking mini-breaks in my cooking to take laundry out of the dryer and put more in the washer. It is multitasking, but one that can be handed without much stress. Delete complex multitasking in any way you can.

Gopher, D., Armony, L. & Greenspan, Y. (2000). Switching tasks and attention policies. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 129, 308-229.

Keller, Gary and Papasan, Jay (2013). The One Thing. Bard Press.

Meyer, D. E. & Kieras, D. E. (1997a). A computational theory of executive cognitive processes and multiple-task performance: Part 1. Basic mechanisms. Psychological Review, 104, 3-65.

Rogers, R. & Monsell, S. (1995). The costs of a predictable switch between simple cognitive tasks. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 124, 207-231.

Rubinstein, J. S., Meyer, D. E. & Evans, J. E. (2001). Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27, 763-797.

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