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The Myth of Multitasking – It Gets Less Done

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Multitasking sounds like a great idea. Get more done in less time!

Wrong.

Neuroscience tells us in fact that the opposite is true. What is actually happening is that every time we move from hearing music, to writing a text, or talking to someone, there is a stop/start process that goes on in the brain. 

Our brains weren’t built to multitask. We are wired to be monotaskers.

Yes, we are capable of doing two things at the same time. It is possible, for example, to watch TV while cooking dinner or to answer an email while talking on the phone.

What is impossible, however, is concentrating on two tasks at once.

Multitasking forces your brain to switch back and forth very quickly from one task to another.

The Myth of Multitasking

That start – stop – start process is mentally draining. Rather than saving time, it does the opposite (even micro seconds worth). It’s less efficient, we make more mistakes, and over time, it can sap our energy and focus – This is the myth of multitasking. 

“Multitasking is like constantly pulling up a plant. This kind of constant shifting of your attention means that new ideas and concepts have no chance to take root and flourish.”

Barbara Oakley

Multitasking forces you to pay a mental price each time you break one task and jump to another. In psychology terms, this mental price is called the switching cost and it is extremely taxing and inefficient.

Switching cost is the disruption in performance that we experience when we switch our attention from one task to another.

A study published in the International Journal of Information Management discovered that the average person checks email once every five minutes and that, on average, it takes 64 seconds to resume the previous task after checking your email.

In other words, because of email alone, we typically waste one out of every six minutes.

Still not convinced?

Lets take a little multi tasking test:

Multitasking Myth Test

Here it is:

  1. Draw two horizontal lines on a piece of paper.
  2. Now, time yourself as you carry out the two tasks that follow:
  • On the first line, write: 
    • I love Sundays
  • On the second line, write out the numbers 1-20 sequentially, like those below:
    • 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

How much time did it take to do the two tasks? Usually it’s about 20 seconds.

Now, let’s multitask. 

Draw two more horizontal lines. This time, write a letter on one line, and then a number on the line below, then the next letter in the sentence on the upper line, and then the next number in the sequence, changing from line to line.

In other words, you write the letter “I” and then the number “1” and then the letter “l” and then the number “2” and so on, until you complete both lines.

I l…..

1 2…..

Your time will probably be around double. You also may have made some errors and you were probably frustrated since you had to “rethink” what the next letter would be and then the next number. 

That’s switch-tasking on something very rudimentary, imagine multitasking on things far more complex? 

Anchor Tasks

As we have discovered, trying to do more things at once generally achieves less – especially toward your core objective. While we ‘feel busy’ – less is actually getting done.

Rather – determine one anchor task per day and focus on that.

The power of choosing one priority per day is that it will naturally guide how you approach and ultimately attack the day by forcing you to organize your life around that priority. This is your anchor task and it is the linchpin that holds the rest of your day in place.

If things get out of hand, there is no debate about what to revert to. You have already decided what is urgent and what is important.

Benefits of mono-tasking

The benefits of monotasking are clear:

• Improved ability to learn
• Increased focus
• More patience
• Improved job performance
• Better recall
• A healthier brain

Why not take a break from multitasking for one week and see what happens?

Conclusion

The key is to accept the fundamental fact that the mind can only do one thing at a time.

Im still working on improving my efficiency and concentration but I have found tools that certainly help.

Using Buffets 25/5 rule has allowed me to find anchor tasks and the Ivy Lee Method helps me prioritize these.

But the most significant change with measurable results has come from just drawing a line in my mental sandbox and committing to one thing at a time.

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