The Myth of Multitasking

I’m not sure about you, but until a few years ago, I really believed you could multitask. That you could truly give complete focus to two things at once. Other people said it was true so I believed it. Until I didn’t.

Have you ever found yourself trying to figure out directions to a place while listening to music or an audiobook? Do you find that you have to turn down the volume of whatever you were listening to in order to focus on making the correct turns to get to your destination?

I know I have. It’s because those two tasks – the listening to something with words like a podcast, music, or a book, uses the same part of your brain that you’re trying to use to figure out where that street is that you need to turn left on. You are not able to focus on both of those things at the same time.

In her book How to Make Good Things Happen: Know Your Brain, Enhance Your Life by Marian Rojas Estapé, Marian Rojas Estapé shares – “Growing up with technology doesn’t make us more intelligent. It’s true that it’s facilitated an endless list of activities, but above all it’s made it easy to develop a particular mental characteristic: multitasking. Neuroscience refers to this as alternating or divided attention. This means that the brain devotes a few minutes or seconds to carrying out one task, then another, and then another. The brain can’t carry out two actions at the same time if they involve the same cerebral area. If we find ourselves listening to song lyrics while reading a book, we aren’t carrying out either task to its fullest.”

So what happens when we attempt to multitask? Clifford Nass, a professor at Stanford University states, “The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking…. In our research, the people who say they’re the best at multitasking because they do it all the time. It’s a little like smoking, you know, saying, I smoke all the time, so smoking can’t be bad for me. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.”

I’ve heard different numbers, but through various studies, researchers have found that people who can actually multitask effectively, meaning that they can actually give full focus to two things using the same part of the brain, is less than 3% of the population. I heard one author say – “And if you think you’re part of the 3%, you likely aren’t. Everyone likes to think they’re part of the exception.”

So let’s just assume that you are not part of the 3% who can multitask. What does this mean for you?

It means you need to stop thinking that you are actually doing more by dividing your attention between two things. You aren’t. You’re likely actually doing a lot less and without full focus.

So that time you were working on writing a paper or a blog while watching tv? Well, it probably wasn’t that effective. You probably took far too much time writing the blog than if you’d done it with full focus, and it likely wasn’t your best work. And, you may not have enjoyed the show as much, because you weren’t able to catch all the dialogue.

What about when your spouse was trying to have a conversation with you but you saw your phone light up from across the room? You nodded and made noises like you were following along but you probably have no idea what they were saying.

This means that not only is the myth of multitasking impacting your productivity, but also your effectiveness, your relationships, and your ability to focus.

So a few tips that can be helpful –

  1. One Screen at A Time – This means if you’re watching tv, only have the tv on. Scrolling Instagram while watching a movie with your spouse isn’t quality time. If you’re on your laptop, that’s your full focus . You aren’t also putting on that background episode of friends for the 7th time. In your car, your windshield is a screen, so no texting or trying to watch a youtube video (I can’t believe I have to type that but people do this and it’s wild) while driving. Even that GPS / radio screen is not ideal to be looking at. Your windshield is your priority. That’s the one that keeps you alive.
  2. Don’t overcommit- We often try to multitask because we have so much to do that trying to do two things at once seems like a good idea. It’s not. You probably have already overcommitted and are avoiding admitting it. No, you don’t need to be in 3 small groups, on the board of multiple non profits, the volunteer for both of your kids at school, as well as the one who hosts friend events and all holidays. What actually is meaningful for you and important to you? Not to other people. Not because of how you want them to perceive you as the helper or the one who’s always there, but what is actually important to you in the long run of the person you want to be? If everyone’s just getting the leftovers and pieces of your time, are you really showing them that they’re that important to you? If you find that you are constantly rushing from thing to thing, cut whatever you’re committed to in half. And then do it again. Try it for a month and see what happens. You may surprise yourself.
  3. Delegate – If you still have certain commitments to keep and a short timeframe, ask for help. See if there’s someone else on the team or in your family or friends who can help you out. And then, go back to the last point and delete come things off the calendar. You can’t do it all. You’re not made that way.
  4. Discipline – I often have to remind myself when something that catches my attention that “That’s only a distraction. You can look at it later. Right now is not the time.” Whether that’s some type of new text or email or other notification.
  5. Research – You don’t have to listen to me about multitasking. And honestly I’d prefer you don’t. I’d rather you do your own research on the topic and understand the risks of multitasking. Both in the short term and long term. But when you do, please at least give it your full focus rather than while watching tv.
  6. Use a Phone Box – I’ve started to implement this during my work day. I’ve tried out just putting my phone off to the side or in a drawer but I’ve implemented a phone box. I just found a box I already had with a lid and my phone goes in there during the day. Mine’s a metal box though, so it can’t just be on vibrate but has to be silent so it doesn’t still end up distracting me. I can have a time to check my phone but I’m not picking it up regularly. Teddy and I have also talked about doing this in our house. Putting a box in the kitchen with chargers or something and trying to be more intentional to not be on them in the evenings when we have time together.
  7. Build Routine – If you are someone who immediately checks your phone upon waking up, try to find something else you can look forward to first prior to the latest feed. Maybe it’s a cup of coffee, a newspaper, a book, meditation or going for a walk. You’ll have to try some things out before knowing what will stick, but if you have something you want to do, that will be more appealing than reading about the high school friend you didn’t really know who just got a cat, the newest wildfire erupting in California, your ex who is now dating someone else, and that the neighbor from your last apartment just bought a new house plant.
  8. Find time for deep work – Don’t put your phone in a box, delegate, and only look at one screen at a time and then not focus on the most important work. Use those tips to focus on the most important work. The needle moving activities in your work or in your personal life. Whether that’s writing, reading, researching, learning a new language or new code, working on a project or otherwise. I’d even argue deep work that requires full focus can just be getting to really send time with your kids learning their hobbies and what’s going on with them. Use these tips to build on each other so you really can focus on what’s most important to you.

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