Do What You’re Doing When You’re Doing It: The Myth of Multi-Tasking

Do What You’re Doing When You’re Doing It: The Myth of Multi-Tasking


The urge to multi-task is understandable: Information moves very quickly today and the demands on our time and attention are greater than ever. Why not try to accomplish two (or three) things at once? The results—sometimes disastrous—answer that question.

Do Just One Thing for Five Minutes

This article is about you. This is about you and the choices you make. It’s about your competence, your productivity, and your time.

It’s going to be 800 words or so—a pretty short read. Do yourself a huge favor by reading it straight through to the end. Maybe it’ll be easier if you shut off your email program and resist the temptation to send or check text messages. Turn off your phone or just turn down the ringer. Shut the door, if you need to. Just give yourself five minutes. Everything else will still be there when you’re finished reading.

Seems Like It Should Work …

When we say “multi-tasking,” we’re referring to tasks that require the abilities and resources of your mind: observing, thinking, analyzing, predicting, etc. So, we’re not talking about things requiring physical exertion, such as riding a stationary bike while doing bicep curls.

Multi-tasking seems like it should be a workable solution to the problem of too much to do and too little time to do it—but it isn’t. Multi-tasking actually reduces productivity by as much as 40%, according to the findings of studies conducted at the University of Michigan and University of Cambridge. And it also increases stress.

The reality is that there is no such thing as multi-tasking, which implies that we do two or more things simultaneously. Rather, we switch our attention from task to task. It’s the time lost in stopping one task and starting or resuming the next that adds up to so much lost productivity.

Plus, the more mentally complex the tasks, the more time you lose when switching between them. The amount of lost time is similar when switching to tasks that are unfamiliar.

So, you can make yourself quite busy switching from task to task but that doesn’t mean you are actually being more productive.

There Is Nothing Wrong with Your Brain

Most articles you will read on productivity and multi-tasking will tend to refer to mental activity in terms of your brain. Forget it. The last time you checked, your brain was sitting in your skull while you chose the words you wanted to type. Your brain helped out a bit in getting your fingers to hit the correct keys on your keyboard. The brain is a wonderfully complex and hard-working organ, but it doesn’t choose or conduct or think about the tasks you carry out during the day.

It’s an empirical (verifiable by observation or experience) fact that you can’t do more than one mental activity at a time: If you are talking to someone on the phone, you can’t also be reading a book. If you’re writing a report, you can’t also participate in a conference call. If you’re listening to a podcast, you can’t also carry on a conversation with someone.

“Oh, I can read a book and talk on the phone at the same time,” you say. Try it out and see: Do you fully get what the other person is saying and also fully understand what the author has written? Or do you end up having to go back and re-read or ask questions?

You choose what you put your attention on. When it’s an activity that requires mental resources, you can only do one thing at a time. That’s how the mind functions. When you try to split your attention between two mentally-demanding tasks, you are not giving 100% of your attention to either one. Don’t be surprised if you end up having to do or review the task again (lost productivity, doing the same work twice).

How Bad Can It Get?

Nowhere is the myth of multi-tasking so vividly and tragically demonstrated than on the road. “Distracted driving” is what the U.S. Department of Transportation calls it when a person drives while interacting with their cell phone, eating & drinking, grooming, reading, or other activities. The statistics are enough to make you put your phone or other devices in the trunk before you pull out of the driveway:

·         In 2009, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 20% of injury collisions involved distracted driving.

·         In 2013, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported that 3,154 people were killed in distracted driving crashes.

·         Reaching for a phone, dialing, or texting or manipulating other portable devices while driving triples the chance of getting into a crash.

Your daily work and personal tasks don’t have such high potential tolls as death or dismemberment but the inefficiency of so-called multi-tasking costs someone—it costs you time and money. And you’re not doing your best work or doing it as quickly as you could when you’re doing that and trying to do something else.

There Is an Upside to This

You will do your work faster and to a better end result if you concentrate on each job one at a time. Sure, there are some tasks we’d all like to avoid and you might have to apply some discipline to see those through. However, veering off to “B” when you are trying to do “A” doesn’t get “A” done—it just makes you feel like your productive when you’re just busy.

When you begin to concentrate on one job at a time, you will find that you’re less stressed as well. Using your full attention for each, you will get tasks done and checked off your list … and they will be of better quality, having had the benefit of all your mental resources.

Just try it and see.

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