Get More Doneâ"One Thing at a Time
By Devora Zack
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2015 Devora Zack
All rights reserved.
The Multitasking Myth
I'm great at multitasking.
Multitasking is neurologically impossible.
No man is free who is not master of himself.
Multitasking fails us.
Let me take that one step further. Multitasking doesn't even exist. We'll circle back to this alarming yet scientifically backed claim later.
Why are so many people drawn into the albatross of multitasking? We are collectively thwarted by modern-day plagues such as:
* Too much to do, too little time
* Cluttered life, cluttered mind
* Growing piles of daily demands
* A whirlwind of distractions
Nooo! [Cue eerie Halloween music.]
This list is the tip of the iceberg. Go ahead; brainstorm a few dozen examples of your own. I'll wait here, tapping my foot, growing ever more anxious that I'm wasting my irreplaceable time.
When you return, check out how one guy I interviewed described multitasking in daily life: "What is the impact of multitasking when looking at text messages while driving? Reading the newspaper while talking on the phone to colleagues? Watching NFL Live when your wife wants to talk about schedules? You run into the car ahead of you, agree to finish a project before it can possibly be done, and schedule a business trip on your father-in-law's birthday."
In a fruitless effort to compensate for the tsunami we call our lives, we try to tackle several tasks at once ... making distracted living rampant. We lose concentration, heighten stress, and senselessly fret over items unrelated to the task at hand. We are relentlessly disrespectful to the people right in front of us—colleagues, customers, vendors, employees, cohorts, and our own family.
Fragmented attention (aka multitasking) fractures results and foils relationships.
A Monster in Our Midst
What makes multitasking so enticing?
We know of the dangers of texting and driving, yet many of us still do it. How can we circumvent distraction? Why is it so difficult to immerse ourselves in a single task at a time? Because lurking around every turn is what I call the multitask monster. Many are thwarted by this compelling creature.
One of his primary tricks is pulling our attention toward unrelated obligations as we work. He looms over our desks, lumbering around our workplace, two heads recklessly swinging in opposite directions, daring us to focus on one over the other. As we stare in despair at our stealthily expanding in-box, the multitask monster soothingly whispers into our ears the Sole Solution: "Tackle two, three, four at once! It is your only hope."
Worse, seemingly everyone else has taken on the multitask monster as a revered guide, responding to his every beck and call.
Resist! Stop the madness! Gather your resilience and kick that multitask monster out the door. Multitask monsters are like ocean sirens luring sailors to disaster—though notably less well groomed.
What if I asked you to banish the multitask monster for one day? Could you do it? What would stop you? Can you give it a go? What results will you reap?
One client reflected, "I've always prided myself on being a multitasker over the years, but if I were to do honest self-evaluation today, I realize there are pitfalls to all this madness!"
Another acknowledged, "When I do more than one thing at a time I never do anything particularly well."
The hard fact is that attempting to multitask correlates with low productivity. By definition, doing more than one thing at a time means you are distracted. The only way to do anything particularly well—or, let's raise the bar, spectacularly well—is through full task engagement. As I heard a father sagely explain to his son, a newly minted college grad, "At any given time, you can do one thing well or two things poorly."
The Allure of Distraction
We are distracted. This does not serve us well. Don't blame yourself entirely. Cultural expectations—based on technological advances—have resulted in unrealistic demands. We are expected to absorb a torrent of information from a plethora of media without pause. We are to be constantly accessible.
Many of us react to the alarming pile of demands by splitting our focus among tasks. We are in the midst of an increasing trend toward what Linda Stone calls "continuous partial attention"—giving superficial, simultaneous attention to competing streams of information. Living in our own personal big bang, we feel unable to keep pace with the frenetically expanding universe encircling our lives. Again and again I hear, "The more I try to keep up, the more overwhelmed I become."
A slew of people suffer from the misconception that multitasking is necessary to cope with task overload. This always backfires.
Multitasking is misleading. Rather than mitigating demands, it magnifies our problems. Our brains are incapable of honing in on more than one item at a time.
Multitasking blocks the flow of information into short-term memory. Data that doesn't make it into short-term memory cannot be transferred into long-term memory for recall. Therefore, multitasking lowers our ability to accomplish tasks.
We are losing our ability to focus. We are scattered. We are impolite. We cause—and suffer from—accidents. We are unproductive. We relinquish control. We pretend to multitask.
Why did I say "pretend"? Because multitasking doesn't exist! I'll keep sneaking in this factoid until you're ready to hear it. It's make-believe! Think Zeus throwing lightning bolts. Or Casper the Friendly Ghost.
Everybody Loves a Neuroscientist
As any neighborhood neuroscientist will attest, the brain can only focus on one thing at a time.
Allow me to expand. The brain is incapable of simultaneously processing separate streams of information from attention-demanding tasks. What we conversationally reference as multitasking is technically called task-switching—moving rapidly and ineffectively among tasks.
As Dr. Eyal Ophir, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, explains, "Humans don't really multitask, we task-switch ... switch[ing] very quickly between tasks." Although this feels like multitasking, the brain is incapable of focusing on two things at once. Plus, performance suffers as attention shifts back and forth.
Not only that, get a load of this from Dr. Earl Miller at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: "You cannot focus on one [task] while doing [an]other. That's because of what's called interference between the two tasks.... People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves. The brain is very good at deluding itself."
To recap, actual multitasking is not possible, and what is commonly labeled as multitasking is really task-switching. We task-switch within tenths of a second; we don't consciously notice delays. So from here forward I will alternatively reference multitasking as task-switching, "attempts to multitask," or "so-called multitasking." Occasionally I'll just say multitasking, although you and I both know that is just shorthand. Most defenders of multitasking do not have a grasp of its actual meaning. I don't intend this as a slam. Multitaskers are only halfway paying attention to what I'm saying anyway.
Even electrical synapses short-circuit over so-called multitasking. As one client shared with me, "I met up with my boss as I walked in this morning. He was talking to me as I entered my PIN into the door lock. I said to him, 'I can't multitask,' meaning I couldn't listen to him and enter my number at the same time. He told me multitasking also backfires in the context of electrical engineering, the way circuits are designed. If you try to make a circuit do more than one thing, its efficiency is reduced."
My client's boss has a doctorate in electrical engineering. In fact, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word multitasking is derived from computer processing, emerging in the English lexicon at the time of the first computer.
Multitasking: [noun] 1. Computing simultaneous execution of more than one program or task by a single computer processor. 2. Handling of more than one task at the same time by a single person.
Replacing rapid-fire shifts with attention on one task at a time enables us to achieve more in less time. We wind up ahead.
When Multitasking Isn't Multitasking
Some folks angrily retort, "I can hold a conversation and empty the dishwasher. I can listen to the radio and drive! That's multitasking."
Allow me to begin by saying that I admire your feisty spirit. That said, Dr. David Meyer can clear things up: "Under most conditions, the brain simply cannot do two complex tasks at the same time. It can happen only when the two tasks ... don't compete with each other for the same mental resources."
Multitasking means combining two or more activities, potentially causing at least one to receive inadequate attention. Activities that require virtually no conscious effort can be performed in conjunction with primary tasks and do not fall in the bandwidth of multitasking. "Simple" tasks are automated, low-level functions, including rote activities that do not require concentration.
Engaging in two unrelated tasks at the same time when at least one does not demand conscious effort is not multitasking. Activities in this category vary based on one's experience and surroundings. For example, driving to the local grocery store is a basic, mundane event for many, yet a new driver must give her full attention to the same event. Doing dishes takes no conscious effort, unless this is an atypical chore for you. Most of us can drive and chat with a passenger or listen to the news and tidy up.
Although autopilot tasks vary based on background and intention, activities that may fall into this category include:
* Listening to music
* Filing papers
* Basic food preparation
* Simple repair or craftwork
It's a slippery slope. Unexpected distraction could cause a favorite passage to be missed, a document to be misplaced, a meal to burn, or glue to spill. We can be driving along a familiar route, space out, and miss a usual exit. The actual cause is a brain that temporarily disengages from our actions. The unruly mind spaces out, goes somewhere else entirely, and fails to synchronize with the current mission. It was multitasking.
There is a fine line between engaging in a largely reflexive activity and maintaining awareness of an unexpected twist. Perhaps you can drive to work without thinking ninety-nine percent of the time. But if a car unexpectedly swerves into your lane, are your reflexes ready to react?
Another danger is confusing automated and attention-demanding tasks. For example, people mistakenly believe they can text and walk, remaining fully aware of their surroundings. We will soon discover the fallacy of this belief.
Although there are instances when engaging in two noncompeting activities can be beneficial, choose carefully. Squeezing a stress ball while on a conference call can be a positive release, whereas checking email is a distraction. Stretching while watching a television show is far more beneficial than just sitting on the couch. Listening to upbeat music while exercising can heighten the effectiveness of a workout, although conversing or reading while on a treadmill typically reduces calories burned. Engaging in two noncompeting activities when at least one is automatic is generally harmless; pursuing competing tasks can exact a very high toll.
The Price We Pay
Raise your hand if you have observed people doing any of the following:
* Colliding with others while looking at a phone
* Not driving when the light turns green
* Playing games on handheld devices at professional events
* Not noticing when arriving at the front of a line at a shop or café
These minor irritations are the tip of the iceberg.
Multitasking takes a terrible toll.
In the United States, distracted driving kills tens of thousands of people each year, with an economic toll from injury and loss of life amounting to $871 billion annually. Distracted driving and driving under the influence (DUI) are nearly tied as the top two causes of deadly car crashes. DUI accounts for 18 percent of deaths in motor vehicle crashes, with distracted driving a factor in at least 17 percent of fatal vehicular accidents. The true percentage is likely much higher. Distracted driving is underreported, because police have difficulty identifying whether distraction has been a factor.
Texting While Driving
The American Automobile Association (AAA) Foundation for Traffic Safety cites handheld phones as a major safety problem. According to a 2014 AAA study, more than 67 percent of U.S. drivers regularly talk or text behind the wheel, despite acknowledging the associated risks.
But, as AAA Director of Traffic Safety Jake Nelson notes, "Using your phone while driving may seem safe, but it roughly quadruples your risk of being in a crash.... None of us is immune to the dangers of distracted driving. The best advice is to hang up and drive."
Texting While Walking
Texting while walking also poses a serious safety issue. A major danger stemming from texting and walking is that pedestrians believe they have it under control. In reality, "when texting, you're not as in control with the complex actions of walking." Paying attention to the phone instead of one's surroundings can be catastrophic.
The most common categories of typical pedestrian distractions include:
* Manual—physically doing something else
* Visual—seeing something that distracts you
* Cognitive—mulling over thoughts in your head
Conduct an experiment next time you are strolling with a colleague using his handheld device. (You, obviously, are walking unhindered, well adjusted, and blissful, thanks to this book.) Gently suggest that he put the device away so as not to step accidentally into oncoming traffic or bash into an innocent passerby.
Does your colleague gratefully reply, "Cheers, mate! Thanks for the helpful reminder. You just saved my life! Lunch is on me!"
Or does he mutter distractedly under his breath, "Relax. Don't worry. I'm fine. I know perfectly well what's going on around me."
When a walker gets whacked upside the head, it's always the other guy's fault. Regardless of who's to blame, the fact remains that the number of injuries involving pedestrians on their mobile phones more than tripled from 2004 to 2010.
Accidents stemming from being distracted, such as texting and walking, result in a particularly high percentage of head injuries and fatalities. As a public service campaign in Washington, DC, reminds drivers, "Pedestrians don't come with airbags."
Preoccupied people fall down stairs, trip on uneven pavement, and walk into traffic.
Distractions While Learning
Multitasking weakens our ability to concentrate. We are collectively losing the ability to sustain prolonged attention, and distraction results in knowledge less flexibly applied in new situations. The capacity to apply knowledge from one context to another is called transference. Attempts to multitask reduce this ability.
In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr argues that the Internet has changed how we process information. Although the Web enables us to find data with greater ease than when we perused periodicals at the local library branch, it hurts how we absorb and retain data. Scanning a screen has largely replaced reading a page, yielding shallow learning and poor retention.
We will delve deeper into these implications in part 2.
Working While Distracted
Repeatedly dropping and picking up a mental thread results in greater mental fatigue and more mistakes than deep immersion in a single task. When we are distracted, the brain processes and stores information ineffectively. Multitasking—constantly switching between tasks—negatively affects concentration. Task-shifting is the antithesis of concentration. Multitaskers exhibit a lower ability to concentrate and are correspondingly less efficient.
Wait, there's more. Multitasking also exacts a toll in three additional areas:
* Quality of life
* Everything else that matters to you
No big deal.
I am frequently asked whether young people have an edge when it comes to multitasking. Does growing up in a high-tech world make one better equipped to do several things at once? It does not. As Douglas Merrill put it, "Everyone knows kids are better at multitasking. The problem? Everyone is wrong."
College and high school students have the same memory limitations as adults. Regardless of age, we understand and recall less when task-shifting. Poorly acquired information results in a weak ability to transfer and apply concepts. Learning to concentrate is a life skill.
As a University of Vermont study revealed, non-course-related software applications on student's laptops are open and active more than 42 percent of the time they are engaged in schoolwork. The level of distraction among university students is epidemic.
The younger generation has a wildly inflated idea of how many things they can attend to at once. Young people who attempt to perform two challenging tasks at once are deluded, because complex brain functions compete for the same part of the brain—the prefrontal cortex. It is difficult for individuals to self-evaluate how well their mental processes are operating, because the processes are unconscious.
Texting, messaging, and being online while in class or doing homework has a negative effect on grade point averages because, as a Harvard study revealed, divided attention hinders our ability to encode information. The result is we remember less, or nothing at all. So-called multitasking behavior "leads to a lower capacity for cognitive processing and precludes deeper learning." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Singletasking by Devora Zack. Copyright © 2015 Devora Zack. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
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