17 Dec

The Myth of Multitasking

As someone who spent a many years as a freelancer, I can ascertain that we lived and breathed by multitasking–for better or worse. I have no doubt I drove clients crazy with attempts to juggle projects, sales, teaching, bookkeeping, and the bare bones of a personal life.

To be honest, I wasn’t very good at it. Juggling, I mean. And as it turns out, I’m not alone.

Tips, Tasks, and Taming Time

We live in a world of constant distractions, from ubiquitous texts and emails to social media posts to 24-hour-news networks. We’re just plain BUSIER, with a greater variety of tasks on than ever before. Time management–a yuppie trend in the 80s–has rapidly become one of our biggest challenges. For years now, we’ve been told that the secret to accomplishing more was multitasking.

That may not be the case, as it turns out.

It could be argued that we actually ARE “doing” more. But there’s a significant difference between activity and accomplishment: in the end, we’re far more active, but we’re actually getting less done in the process. So, why does everyone still think multitasking is such a great idea?

The Myth of the Multitasker

Most of us consider multitasking a necessary part of life. How else could we possibly meet all the rigorous demands of our over-stimulated, over-scheduled, modern digital schedules?

But some compelling research by the American Psychological Association shows that what we consider multitasking is in reality both inefficient and ultimately ineffective. The problem lies in the transitions: switching from one task to another is seldom if ever seamless.

Switching projects creates an internal time lag while your brain partially dumps the task you just finished, turns its attention to the new project, then tries to remember where you left off. It may feel like the shift is frictionless, but research has shown that for more for complex tasks, the multitasker is taking as much as 40 percent more time than it would take to complete one task before moving on.

The end result is that our attempts to get more done by multitasking are backfiring. Ironically, the thing we do to decrease stress is, more than anything else, stressing us out more.

Brains Aren’t Built for This

Studies have shown that even our brains are not designed for multitasking.

Ever been straining to find a house number in a strange neighborhood at night? And you almost automatically reach up and turn off the radio, right? Why? You’re not going to hear the house number. Stupid, right?

No. Not at all.

The issue isn’t noise, per se: it’s input. You’re multitasking even when you don’t realize it. Your brain is trying to identifying a specific location while you’re subconsciously singing “Purple Rain.” Turning off the radio is a way of accessing more working memory for the more important task.

That’s how our brains are supposed to work.

Think of your brain as a computer, with each program requiring a portion of operating memory. The first program gets the most; if you don’t close that program before starting another, the computer has to make do with whatever memory is still available.

Each subsequent program you open is getting a portion of the processing power that is still accessible. Your brain does more or less the same thing, which means if you’re trying to do four things at once, you can’t really focus on any of them.

And it gets worse.

Since you’re not fully engaged in any one thing, your brain starts expecting you to switch tasks again–meaning you’re even LESS engaged with your current project. It’s like going through a haunted house: after the third zombie has jumped out of the shadows and scared you, you can barely concentrate on your next step, right? You’re listening for any hint, watching for any shadow that might be another ghoul.

When you’re task-jumping, your brain even anticipating–if not actively looking for–the next change. That’s why you become more easily distracted the more projects you have going at one time. Your mind is saying to itself “Better not get too wrapped up in this … gonna have to jump back to that main project any second.”

You lose your ability to focus. You become forgetful. You become–you guessed it–even more stressed.

A Place in this World

So is it even possible to become a “single-tasker” in this day and age? To train ourselves to primarily focus on one project or activity at a time, finishing it before moving on to the next one?

It’s worth trying. There will, of course, always be interruptions, but choosing not to jump to another project is likely to increase your productivity, boost the quality of your work … and paradoxically, save you time in the long run.

Which is sort of the point.