Juliette thinks she’s a master at multi-tasking. She responds to e-mails, checks Facebook, talks with passing colleagues and does her “real work” all at the same time. But she’s exhausted by the end of the day. She woke up twice last night remembering she forgot to submit a report. She almost caused an accident texting her boss about a customer issue. She’s also been nodding off during meetings. So much for being more productive.
The hard reality is that multi-tasking is physically impossible. Attempting to do so impairs your thinking and makes you less productive. So how can this be when everyone seems to believe that it’s the magic pill for getting more done? More importantly, what can you do to eliminate multitasking and make yourself more productive?
We can begin with one irrefutable fact: The brain can only attend to one thing at a time. The key word here is attend. If you are checking Facebook while chatting with a friend, you may hear what they’re saying but are not really listening. That’s why you end up saying, “Sorry, would you repeat that?” If you’re watching a video and typing a report, you may end up keying part of what the actors are saying into the text of what you’re writing. Rather than multi-tasking, what you’re really doing is “time slicing,” a term coined by Microsoft researcher Linda Stone. In other words, your attention is bouncing back and forth from one mental task to another. As your brain attempts to follow this stream of consciousness, it only picks up bits and pieces of each task. The result is incomplete memories about everything. As you attempt to manage several tasks simultaneously, you’re also draining your brain’s reservoir of energy. This is why you arrive at the office feeling energized, only to be dragging by 11AM.
Here’s the critical part of the equation. The brain is constantly learning from your choices and actions and making adjustments. Continued attempts to multi-task tells the brain to form a routine around this kind of back-and-forth energy. Over time, the brain produces dopamine, a pleasure-producing chemical that makes you feel good that you’ve accomplished so much. This, by the way, is the same chemical produced in response to stimulants like caffeine and amphetamines. In other words, you become addicted to the good feeling of accomplishing more, even though it’s an illusion. But this practice can’t go on continuously without producing fatigue and discomfort. That’s why you feel cumulatively exhausted over a period of days or weeks and unhappy when you think you’re not keeping up.
Not only does this pursuit drain your energy, it also makes you a more shallow thinker. When you’re only focusing for milliseconds on each task, the brain does not have the time to create and store the schemas essential to forming clear understandings about each activity and what needs to be accomplished. When you attempt to recall the details of a conversation, a set of verbal instructions or the insight you had about solving a problem, the brain can’t produce them because they weren’t really recorded in memory.
Of course, the constant distractions and messaging in today’s society contribute to all this. When you are immersed in a steady diet of advertisements for 30-second abs, two-minute meals and one-click shopping, your beliefs about what’s possible turn into impatience. This impatience spreads to all parts of your thinking. “If I can have 30-second abs, why isn’t there software than can produce a 30-second report?” After a while, impatience becomes a part of your psyche. This is arguably why attention spans have become abysmally short. Sadly, people who don’t take the time to concentrate fail to grasp the nuances of their daily challenges. That impairs their decision making and quality of work.
At this point, multi-taskers with the patience to read this far are thinking, “Prove it!” Torkel Klingberg, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, observes that, “How well we manage to multi-task is related to the information load on working memory. Often, we can do the tasks if one of them is automatic, such as walking. However, a working memory task can never be automatic, as the information it contains has to be encoded through the frontal and parietal lobes. This is why it can be so difficult to do two working memory tasks at once.”
Daniel Levitan, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at McGill University, adds “Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can over-stimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation.” Others have even shown that the cognitive losses from multitasking are greater than the cognitive losses from pot smoking.
Of course, many multi-taskers don’t want to hear all this for one simple reason: It challenges long-held beliefs. But here’s an overlooked truth. The most productive people within your workplace compartmentalize their work and complete one task at a time. As a result of this discipline, they benefit from the insights that come with concentration and the momentum associated with following one task to completion. They also work fewer hours, sleep more soundly and enjoy more balance. So what does it take to stop multi-tasking and become one of these productive contributors?
First, stop listening to the “multi-taskers around you. The truth is that multi-tasking is the result of a myth. Sure, you can be running copies, heating water for coffee and texting a colleague at the same time. But how about tasks requiring evaluation, analysis or creativity? Resist the peer pressure and observe those who always produce the best work. Better still, ask them how they do it. Most will be happy to share, but only for a few minutes. After all, you’re interrupting their rhythm.
How do you handle the boss who insists you multi-task? Find a way to demonstrate the difference in outcomes. The next time he or she brings up the topic, you might say, “I read this article that says that focusing on one task at a time results in better overall outcomes and helps me conserve energy. I’ve been trying these ideas for the past few weeks and it does work better.” You might also say something like, “Chuck always seems to produce top-notch work and I asked him how he does it. He told me that he concentrates on one task at a time rather than trying to juggle.” These arguments are tough to refute.
Second, alter your environment to discourage multi-tasking. Addicted to Facebook? Constantly checking CNN for the latest news? Texting all day with your spouse or friends? Set your mobile device to vibrate. Put your phone on “Do Not Disturb.” Turn off the sound on your laptop. Install a pop-up blocker. Exit your e-mail app rather than letting it run in the background. Turn your desk so your eyes don’t connect with everyone passing by.
All of this will come with a certain amount of initial discomfort. But as long as you’re gripped by the desire to multi-task, your ability to be more productive will be thwarted. Over time, that desire for the dopamine rush will be replaced by the rush you feel by producing better results. Remember, all growth comes by dealing with the discomfort associated with change. Allow yourself periodic breaks, of course, but don’t let the distractions drive your day.
Third, chunk your time. Rather than being reactive in managing your time, be proactive. Executives divide their time into short segments allowing them to clearly prioritize daily tasks. One chief financial officer I’ve interviewed divides her ten-hour day into fifteen-minute chunks. Interview a potential vendor? Fifteen minutes or one chunk. Clear e-mail in the morning and afternoon? Thirty minutes each time or four chunks. A telephone call with me? Thirty minutes or two chunks. You’re initial reaction might be, “I can’t do that. People interrupt me all the time.” But that’s what you’re choosing to allow. Put parameters on your time and most people will comply. Those who don’t will learn over time and you’ll benefit from better concentration.
The bottom line? Attempting to multi-task makes you a shallow thinker, impairs your productivity and wears you out. Developing the habits of mind to ignore temptation and remain disciplined about working on one task at a time will ensure that you’ll be the one the boss looks to when it comes time for promotions, bonuses and greater opportunities.