I doubt you get bored a lot these days.
You can access various sources of entertainment within seconds. You can start watching a new series right away. Or check your social media profiles. Or, if you’re up to it, start a different task. You’ve mastered the art of multitasking.
Multitasking has become immensely popular in the last twenty years. So popular that in 2003, ‘multitask’ found its way into the Oxford Dictionary as a verb.
But here’s a conundrum.
On one hand, multitasking has spread across genders, cultures and ideologies. Conservatives and liberals, entrepreneurs and corporate executives, feminists and chauvinists, pro- and anti-LGBT’s — everyone is multitasking.
On the other hand, research states that multitasking can drop your productivity by almost 50 percent. The internet overflows with articles which make it sound like multitasking is responsible for us not being friends with aliens.
How can a trait which unites mankind like nothing else, be bad?
This post will clear your befuddlement.
Is Multitasking Bad?
Yes, it is. Period.
But, you’ve already heard this. In fact, you do, at an intuitive level, feel the damage which multitasking causes.
The question is: why?
Here are 3 negative effects of multitasking.
1. It causes ‘inattentional blindness’
Researchers at Western Washington University placed a unicycling clown close to frequented path on the university’s Red Square. Then they surveyed 151 people walking on that path. Some were talking on a phone, others were listening to music or talking to someone with them, or just walking alone.
According to their findings, only 25 percent of phone users noticed the unicycling clown, as against 51 percent people walking on their own.
‘Inattentional blindness’ means the failure to notice new information in an environment. A unicyclist is a rare sight on the Western Washington University Campus. And a clown can throw a pie at your face. Okay, it won’t hurt much.
But failure to absorb new information has larger implications. It means your mind becomes slower. In today’s times, when things keep changing rapidly and you must keep up, a slow (or dumb) mind is a curse.
Worse, inattentional blindness can be fatal. Imagine walking down a busy road while talking on your phone. A passerby once saved me from an oncoming car, when I almost walked right in its path while talking on my phone.
2. It reduces productivity.
Why does multitasking downgrade your productivity by almost half?
Here are two reasons:
a. Attention residue. Have you left a task halfway to hurry on to another one, only to find yourself feeling frazzled?
You’re not the only one who feels like this.
When we switch between tasks, our attention doesn’t follow immediately. A residue remains stuck on the previous task. Sophie Leroy, in her academic paper, called this attention residue.
Jumping from one task to another is as unhealthy as smoking cigarettes. When you stop a task midway to respond to an email, or jump from one futile meeting to another, your attention is less than optimal. This is especially true if the previous task was of low intensity. As a result, you give less than 100 percent to your current task. Do this many times and you have nothing left to work with.
The only factor becoming scarce in a world of abundance is human attention. — Kevin Kelley
b. Disorganized thoughts. Does multitasking give you a high? Does juggling between many tasks make you feel like you’re doing more?
I’ve got some bad news for you.
Stanford researchers surveyed heavy multitaskers — people who claimed multitasking boosted their performance. They found that such people had trouble organizing their thoughts and differentiating between the relevant and irrelevant. Heavy multitaskers were worse off than those who single-tasked.
A disorganized mind leads to a flaky thinking. Such a mind will suck at taking decisions. And in the Information Age, decision-making is arguably one of the most important traits you can imbibe.
3. Multitasking affects your brain.
In addition to slowing you down, multitasking drains your brain of oxygenated glucose. This, dear multitasker, means you feel tired faster.
It also compromises your IQ. A study by the University of London highlighted two startling traits in chronic multitaskers:
- While multitasking, their IQ scores declined to levels similar to that of staying up all night or smoking marijuana,
- At such times, men lowered their IQ scores by around 15 points, to match the average range of an 8-year-old child.
If you’ll work like an 8-year-old, all that education you gained was for for nothing.
To sum up, here’s how multitasking messes your brain up:
- It causes ‘inattentional blindness’
- It reduces your productivity by up to 50 percent
- It drops your IQ to that of an average 8-year old.
Did I mention that media multitasking — consuming multiple media forms — can alter your brain? So much that you can lose control of cognitive performance and regulating your social behavior.
What does all this mean? It means multitasking makes you a regressive homo sapien.
But don’t worry. I won’t leave you hanging.
5 Ways to Stop Multitasking And Regain Your Focus
You can avoid the deathtrap of multitasking. It just take some rewiring of your mind. And being the chronic experimenter that I am, I (and experts) have found practical ways which you can use to fire this toxic habit.
1. Allot hours for urgent work
Today, everything feels urgent. Like texting your contacts 24/7, playing fastest-finger-first with emails and working on tasks whose ‘deadline was yesterday’. These ‘urgent’ tasks suck you into the quicksand of multitasking.
Smart single-taskers are different from you in one key way — they know how to differentiate between the important and the urgent, and the relevant and irrelevant.
At Amazon, decisions get classified into two forms:
- Type 1 — Mission critical, high impact choices which influence larger strategies
- Type 2 — Lower stakes choices which are reversible.
In your life, certain actions will lead you to your long-terms goals and enable you to grow. These are Type 1 actions. The others, like email, meetings, IM and media multitasking, will pull you away from your goals. These are Type 2 actions.
Single-task on your Type 1 actions for extended periods of time. Allot specific time for your Type 2 actions outside your Type 1 work schedule.
You might not have the luxury to wriggle out of futile meetings or the relentless bombardment of emails. That’s okay. Do this instead: allot the last five minutes of each hour to check and respond to your emails. If you must respond to an email, do so immediately. If you must send a detailed response, file it in your mental ‘deep work’ section. Also, find an alibi to avoid ONE MEETING each day.
Use this time you’ve saved to focus on your Type 1 work.
2. Stick to your timelines
Alright. You’ve decided to spend just five minutes of each hour on email. That’s great!
But the biggest challenge mankind faces today — bigger than supporting notorious politicians (no, I’m not taking names) — is to walk the talk.
I might feel tempted to take “five more minutes” to respond to two ‘FYI’ emails. Five minutes turn to twenty five in the blink of an eye. I don’t just check emails in those twenty five minutes. I let other distractions grab my attention. And I end up — surprise surprise! — multitasking.
But when I stick to my timelines — checking emails just twice a day — I perform significantly better.
Stick to your timelines. This doesn’t just free up time for important work. It also trains your mind to regain focus.
Single-task while working on your Type 2 actions also. You’ll complete them faster and with more efficiency. Once you’re done, shut down your emails and dedicate your attention to your Type 1 tasks.
3. Take constructive breaks
For many years, I vaguely felt the after-effects of attention residue. After reading about it, I became even more aware of the toll it took on me.
Here’s an example. When I checked my smartphone during a break, I could FEEL a drop in efficacy when I returned to my task. But when I used the break to stretch my body or plan my next steps, I breezed through the hour. And I felt happier.
Studies find people who take breaks are more productive. But don’t use these breaks to surf Facebook or check emails. If you do, you’ll experience fractured attention.
Take a quick break before you switch to a new task. Take a washroom break or jog on the spot. Read a few paragraphs from a good book, or let your mind wander.
When you don’t consume content during a break, your mind subconsciously reflects on what you did. This brings more clarity and helps your mentally streamline your actions before you start. As a result, your resilience improves and your mind becomes sharper.
When you have more than thirty minutes of free time, use it to do something ‘healthy.’ Cooking, playing the guitar and riding my motorcycle are cathartic for me. They help me return to my work with renewed energy.
Which actions are healthy for you? Let’s compare notes in the comments section.
4. Restrict internet access
For healthy break, its essential to avoid the internet like a cat avoids water.
You might want to check your Facebook or Twitter feed for just a minute. Or just check your IM’s to make sure you don’t miss an important update. But the internet is like a blackhole, which will suck your attention faster than you can say, “Damn!”
If I place a brick on top of another for each time I ended up wasting half an hour browsing through shit on the internet when I wanted to search for something specific, I’ll build a staircase to Mars. Elon Musk, here I come!
The internet is a form of media multitasking. And as you read above, it fractures your attention and reduces your cognitive and social abilities.
Just like you allot time for your Type 2 actions, set limits for internet usage. Want to do something drastic? Pull the cable from your router. Want to do something less drastic? Install the SelfControl app or Go F**king Work Chrome extension.
Allow your mind to feel bored outside these times when you cannot access the internet. Feeling bored is necessary to refresh your mind, to find answers to nagging questions and to train yourself to live in the present moment.
5. Eat healthy
Multitasking and eating? Huh!
Time is not your most valuable asset. Your energy is.
If you fill your body with junk and oily food, your energy will remain low. And if your energy is low, you’ll fail to exercise the willpower to focus on what’s important. You’ll keep yielding to multitasking for instant gratification.
Eat healthy food. Exercise thrice a week. A healthy body leads to a healthy mind, one which can control its impulses. The result? You get into proactive mode rather than letting circumstances decide how you should work.
Do you want to possess the same skills you had last year? Do you want to remain at your current level? Or do you have dreams, goals and targets?
If you have a one-year target, can you achieve it by dividing your attention the way you do right now? You might, if you’ve set a dismally low goal. But if you’re like that, I doubt you would’ve read this far.
To build a remarkable career, to surpass your own expectations, you must do hard but satisfying work. You must build your ability to focus. Only by reducing multitasking can you do this.
The human brain, despite evolving over hundreds of thousands of years, can focus on just one task at once. Don’t punish it by trying to ‘push its limits’ the wrong way. Push your mind’s limits, but do it right.
Don’t stop multitasking because science says so. Stop it because its right for you.