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What do leprechauns, the lock-ness monster, and multitasking all have in common? They’re all myths. Your colleague can’t multitask, you can’t multitask...no one can. Even the tech-savvy, multi-device-juggling Millennials can't multitask. Yet on a daily basis we cling to the multitasking myth as we work across multiple devices and systems trying to squeeze more productivity out of our day.
We are all guilty of multitasking. You’ll probably even be tempted to “multitask” a few times while reading this article. You may glance at an email, send a text, add a task to your to-do list, or create a calendar reminder.
Today’s work environments and culture are carnivals of distracting multitasking demands. And it’s costly. Researchers estimate we lose 28% of an average workday to multitasking ineffectiveness. And a Microsoft study found it can take up to 15 minutes to refocus after an interruption. Imagine what the cumulative loss of focus and productivity are over a career or to business.
Why We “Multitask”
• It’s (ancestral). Multitasking was a necessity for survival. Our ancestors had to survey the foreground while assessing the threats in the background.
• It’s tempting. Humans produce as many as 50,000 thoughts a day. We are constantly tempted to change direction and pursue new thoughts and ideas.
• It’s addictive. Media multitasking produces dopamine squirts in our brains.
• It’s necessary. Many of us believe we must multitask to get everything done. Workers change desktop windows, check email, or other programs nearly 37 times an hour.
Why Multitasking Is A Myth
According to Gary Keller, author of the #1 Wall Street Journal and New York Times bestselling book: The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, “multitasking” first appeared in the 1960s to describe computers, not people. Computers were becoming so “fast” that a whole new word was needed to describe a computer’s ability to quickly perform many tasks.
Originally the term “multitasking” referred to multiple tasks alternately sharing one resource (the CPU). However, the interpretation of multitasking has shifted to mean multiple tasks being done simultaneously by one resource (a person).
Today’s computers give the illusion that everything happens at the same time, when in reality computers have to switch back and forth to process and can only process one piece of code at a time. Humans operate the same way. We can only process one piece of information at a time. Thus multitasking, as we know it, is a myth.
The Reality of Multitasking
Can you listen to a podcast and drive at the same time? Sure. Humans can do two things at once, but we cannot focus effectively on two things at once. And often times we rely on muscle memory to help us perform one of the two tasks.
It’s very likely that if you were to get lost while driving in a car, that you’d turn down the podcast you were listening to so that you could fully focus on the higher complex task of finding your way. Or if the roads you were driving on became icy, your retention of the podcast content would drop significantly as your focus shifted to driving safely.
If you are instant messaging a peer during a conference call, or texting while having a conversation, or emailing during a team meeting, you are actually switching between the tasks. Researchers refer to this as “task switching.”
Interestingly, it’s been proven that younger brains can switch between tasks with greater effectiveness than older brains. This explains why Millennials (those born in the 80s and 90s) and Generation Z (the post-Millennial generation) give the illusion that they are elite multitaskers. When in reality their brain allows them to switch between tasks with greater ease and less loss of focus.
You can still manage to extract the necessary and important information while you task switch but don’t think for a second that you are 100% present and delivering your best performance within each task. Our brains simply do not allow it.
What To Do?
• Appreciate the limitations of your brain and your focus.
• Start small. Block off 15min to hyper-focus on one activity or task.
• Throughout the day decide what matters most in the moment and give it your undivided attention.
• Quiet your world so you can conquer what matters by building a work bunker: silence your phone, close email and social media, turn wifi off, etc.
We will never achieve 100% distraction free work. Distractions aren’t a problem that can be solved but rather a tension we must manage. Hopefully with a renewed perspective of task switching you can better manage this tension and avoid the devastating productivity costs. For it’s said, those that chase two rabbits will not catch either one.
Fight on for your focus.