Why multitasking is killing your productivity and how to regain your focus

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Are you the veritable task-juggler?

Is being on a conference call with a client while shooting off several emails and reading the sales report your team just finished second nature to you?

Congratulations, multitasker!

You jump from task to task with the grace of a gazelle and are highly commended for your daily feats.

But wait…

Didn’t you resend some of those emails because you forgot to attach the presentation?

Didn’t you call your client again to confirm certain details of the conversation?

What about the glaring typo in the sales report, how did you miss that?

Even if you fall in the 2% of the population—the super-taskers—whose performance does not deteriorate even when multiple demands are placed on their attention, for the remaining 98% of us (the humans), every time we try to focus on more than one thing at a time, performance suffers.

Jumping tasks has a high cost associated with it.

“When we speak of multitasking, what we really mean is that we are switchtasking: switching rapidly between one task and another. Yet, each time we switch, no matter how quickly that switch takes place in our mind, there is a cost associated with it. It’s an economic term called switching cost—and the switching cost is high,” writes time management expert Dave Crenshaw in The Myth Of Multitasking.

A study, Executive Control Of Cognitive Processes In Task Switching, published in 2001 determined that for all types of tasks, subjects lost time when they had to switch from one task to another.

This “time cost of switching” was higher as tasks got more complex. Time costs were also greater when the participants switched to tasks that were relatively unfamiliar. They got up to speed faster when they switched to tasks they knew better.

Even short interruptions like the few seconds it takes to silence a buzzing smartphone can have a surprisingly huge impact on your ability to accurately complete a task.

A 2013 study, Momentary Interruptions Can Derail The Train of Thought, conducted by Erik Altmann, professor of psychology at Michigan State University, US, and his associates, found that interruptions of roughly 3 seconds doubled the error rate of the task. Interruptions of 4.5 seconds tripled the number of errors.

So why was the error rate increasing with time?

“The answer is that the participants had to shift their attention from one task to another. Even momentary interruptions can seem jarring when they occur during a process that takes considerable thought,” writes Prof. Altmann in a 2013 article on the university’s website.

Our brain can do only one task at a time.

“The truth is your brain is not designed to do more than one thing at a time. It literally cannot achieve this, except in very rare circumstances. Instead, it toggles back and forth from one task to the next. For example, when you are driving while talking on the phone, your brain can either use its resources to drive or to talk on the phone, but never both. Scans show that when you talk on the phone, there is limited activation of your visual brain—suggesting you are driving without really watching. This explains how we can sometimes end up places without knowing exactly how we got there,” writes Sandra Bond Chapman in the book, Make Your Brain Smarter: Increase Your Brain’s Creativity, Energy, and Focus.

If you are still keen on keeping up several IM conversations at once, text messaging while watching TV and jumping from one website to another while writing the marketing report: Beware!

Multitasking might be slowing you down.

A 2009 study found that heavy multitaskers—those who multitask a lot and feel that it boosts their performance—were actually worse at multitasking than those who like to do a single thing at a time.

If juggling a variety of activities is fraught with so many disadvantages, why do we continue to multitask on a daily basis?

Multitasking makes you feel better even if it hurts your performance.

In a study, published in 2012 in the Journal Of Communication, researchers found that students who were watching TV while reading a book reported feeling more emotionally satisfied than those who studied without watching TV. However, they also reported that they didn’t achieve their cognitive goals as well.

“Cognitive needs are not satisfied by media multitasking even though they drive media multitasking in the first place. Instead, emotional gratifications are obtained despite not being actively sought. This helps explain why people increasingly multitask at the cost of cognitive needs,” says the study.

You can still walk your dog while speaking to your BFF on the phone, though.

Research shows that tasks that take up separate areas of the brain can be clubbed together.
Crenshaw refers to these tasks as “background-tasking”. These are mindless or mundane activities that occur in the background and don’t require your attention, like watching TV and eating dinner or making a cup of coffee while talking to a client.

The key is to match activities like writing or reading that involves complex thinking and judgement, with tasks that your brain can handle on an autopilot.

Therefore, you can study effectively while listening to instrumental music since reading comprehension and processing instrumental music engage different parts of the brain.

However, your ability to retain information will decline significantly when reading and listening to music with lyrics because both tasks activate the language center of the brain.

Want to accomplish more and reduce multitasking?

Follow these three steps:

  • Focus without distractions. Put your phone on silent, turn off email notifications, tell your colleagues you need 30 minutes of uninterrupted time.
  • Take regular breaks. After every 20-30 minutes, the brain starts feeling tired and looks for distractions. Step away from the task and go for a walk or just look out of the window. Even a 2-5 minute break will refresh your brain.
  • Make a to-do list to record your top 2 or 3 priority tasks for each day. Ensure that you get these done. Accomplishing your important tasks daily will make you feel productive.

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