The truth about multitasking is that it’s a lie. Even the tech-savvy, multi-device-juggling Millennials cannot multitask. They can’t. You can’t. No one can.
I bet you’re multitasking right now or at least you’re thinking about what other tasks you can layer on while reading this. We are all guilty of multitasking. Today’s culture and work environments are carnivals of distracting multitasking demands.
Gary Keller wrote a chapter about the myth of multitasking in his #1 Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today, Publisher’s Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, and Los Angeles Times book, The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. (I highly recommend you pick up that book and multitask your way through it.) Here are some of the multitasking learnings from The One Thing.
Why We Multitask
- Multitasking was a necessity for survival. Ancestors had to survey the foreground while assessing threats in the background.
- Humans average 4,000 thoughts a day. Every second we are tempted to change direction and to try to do more at once.
- Media multitasking produces bursts of dopamine in the brain. It’s addictive.
- We believe we must multitask to get everything done. Workers change desktop windows, check email or other programs nearly 37 times an hour.
Related Read: 4 Steps to Squash Information Overload
The Myth of Multitasking
“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.
The Reality of Multitasking
Can you walk and chew gum at the same time? Sure. Humans can do two things at once, but we cannot focus effectively on two things at once. If you were walking and giving someone directions over the phone, you’d likely stop walking to fully engage in the higher complex task of providing directions. If you get lost while driving in the car (does that ever happen anymore?), you’d likely turn down the car music in order to focus.
If you’re listening to a conference call and composing an email or texting while having a conversation or playing Xbox and listening to your mother - you are actually switching between the tasks. Researchers refer to this as “task switching” and it's been proven that younger brains can switch between tasks with greater effectiveness than older brains thus Millennials and Generation Z giving the illusion they are the multitasking elite. We can skate by with pulling only the important and necessary information while you task switch but don’t kid yourself thinking you are 100% present and delivering your best performance within each task. Our brains simply do not allow it.
Costs Of Multitasking
- Dividing our brain capacity across tasks costs more time and effectiveness than you realize. In fact researchers estimate we lose 28% of an average workday to multitasking ineffectiveness. What’s the cumulative loss over a career or to business?
- Loose ends pile up. The longer you spend switched to another task the less likely you are to get back to the original task.
- We overestimate how long it actually takes to complete tasks.
- Multitaskers make more mistakes.
- Multitasking makes you slower witted.
What To Do?
- Don’t beat yourself up. Distraction is natural. Everyone gets distracted.
- Decide what matters most in the moment and give it your undivided attention.
- Build a work bunker that quiets your world so you can conquer what matters most.
- Read The One Thing to find laser focus and achieve more with less.
The truth is, you and I will continue to multitask but now we can’t say we weren't warned of the costs. We will only have ourselves to blame when we miss commitments and deadlines due to our chronic task-switching. “If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one.” ~Russian Proverb
Fight on for your focus.
Question: Did you multitask while reading this? How will you slay the mythical multitasking beast?