Can you ‘do it all’…?
If you think that technological advances have made society more productive – think again.
We live in a time of unprecedented opportunity and temptation to multitask.
You’re on a virtual conference call with a colleague, while replying to emails, while scheduling your meetings next week, while thinking about what to have for lunch…
The increasing large role that technology plays in our lives leads us to believe that our lives have become easier – but this is not actually the case.
Whether it’s worse for us than marijuana is debatable. Even if that apocryphal study that multitasking lowers your IQ by ten points more than smoking marijuana is more myth than medical research, what is true is that multitasking is definitely bad for you.
…or are you just doing less?
The ease and accessibility of having the world at our fingertips creates an urge for us to do more ourselves; why not cut out the middleman (or woman)? Thanks to mobile technology, we are now our own travel agents, executive assistant, and personal shopper.
Or maybe you respond to your email and social media while you’re doing something else — writing, or analysing data; something that should really demand your full attention.
In the age of modern technology, with smart phones and tablets, we think we can do it all. We think multitasking is a way to do more, more effectively, whereas in fact, it’s exactly the opposite.
What does it even mean anyway: multitasking?
The actual term ‘multitasking’ is misleading because we might think we’re doing more than one thing at once, but that’s not what our brain is actually doing.
What essentially happens when we switch between tasks is just that – we switch between tasks.
Our brain is easily distracted and jumps from task to task, taking longer to complete all tasks simultaneously than it would if it attacked them one by one.
So what’s wrong with task switching?
Although you may not realise it, multitasking — or task switching to be more accurate — is costing you in ways that are potentially deadly to your health and your productivity. Let’s look at three of them:
1. Task switching is costing you time
When you need to pay attention to something specific, it all happens in the pre-frontal cortex of your brain. This part of your brain helps to focus attention and to relay messages between your task and your brain.
Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT found that our pre-frontal cortex can only respond to one, or at most two, visual stimuli at any one time — meaning we can only focus on one thing at a time. As soon as more stimuli are introduced, the pre-frontal cortex flits between them, wasting time jumping, swapping, and refocusing.
Not only does your brain have to jump swiftly between tasks, but it takes four times longer to recognise new things after you’ve made the switch. This is what’s happening on one of those days when it felt like you did a lot of ‘work’ but you also didn’t really achieve anything.
It’s the switching that is making you less productive at work and less productive at home.
2. You make mistakes
This flipping between stimuli, or switching between tasks tires out the pre-frontal cortex, and we lose concentration even before we’re even asked to do anything with the stimuli at hand – say, for example, text out a message with it, or read something out loud.
When we do those tasks we’re flipping between, we have reduced concentration because, at that point our brain can’t take in more than one thing. And if we try, then we don’t complete any single activity, or we make mistakes doing it.
Which means that multitasking makes you less productive overall. As well as getting less done because you’re switching from task to task, you also perform poorly because when you multitask, and you make more mistakes.
And then you have to fix those mistakes, while fixing those other ones… and those other ones.
3. You may be damaging your brain
The constant flipping from task to task can actually change the composition of our brain.
A study at the University of Sussex found a link between the simultaneous use of multiple media devices, and a reduction of grey-matter density in a certain area of the brain.
Multitaskers were found to have less grey matter (the part that process information) in certain parts of their brain — although which way the causality links is unclear. It could be that multitasking causes this change in your brain, or maybe people with this particular brain formation are more prone to multitasking?
While the conclusions of this study are still incomplete, there may be a link between multitasking and poor attention in the face of distractions, as well as anxiety and depression.
Whatever the neurological effects, multitasking (or task swapping) causes your brain to work harder for poorer results, lowers your productivity, causes you to make more mistakes, and (possibly) harms your brain.
Become a ‘serial tasker’
How, then, do we combat the desire to be juggling ten things at once, without once dropping the ball?
1. Schedule Time Away From The Computer
Julie Morgenstern, productivity expert and best selling author of Time Management From The Inside Out, suggests that people who are prone to multitasking should schedule ‘screen breaks’ — time away from the computer — into their day in order to approach each specific task deeply.
Between one and three hours, each screen break should allow for one task only, with which you can engage in a deeper, more focused way than if you were trying to do three things at once.
Screen breaks can also be used for scheduling your private life. Set aside time for just reading (no checking your emails!), and answer emails at a set time each day, instead of scrambling to do them in between tasks.
2. Mix and Match
Elizabeth Sanders on 99u advocates for a ‘layering’ approach to multitasking. This means pairing two tasks that are non-essential, but both enhance two areas of your life.
Walk your dog while listening to the news on your smartphone, or commute to work with a friend to build your social connections. Listen to a podcast while you’re driving. These are all examples of tasks that can be layered.
The trick is to pair things that don’t require focus. As soon as you need to focus (you’re approaching your destination and you need to look for a parking space for example), then you have to drop the second activity.
Importantly, use time where you are doing mundane tasks to attack bigger problems. Write your shopping list while you’re waiting for the bus, or plan your schedule for the week while you queue at the supermarket. Reply to text messages or emails while on hold with the phone company.
Take one step
Changing your habits isn’t easy, but it could save you a lot of time, and brain power.
Focus on building small changes into your day, like setting an alarm for email time, locking your phone in a drawer, or only having one screen up on your computer at a time, can be an effective way to start reducing your multitasking habits.
Take some time out, turn off the devices, and become more productive.
Are you still multitasking? And what can you do about it? Let us know on social media!