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Why and How to Break the Multitasking Habit

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by Devora Zack, CEO, Only Connect Consulting, Inc.


Devora Zack

With too much to do, too little time, and growing piles of daily demands, multitasking is undeniably enticing. As we stare in despair at our stealthily expanding inbox, the multitask monster soothingly whispers the Sole Solution: “Tackle two, three, four at once! It is your only hope.”

Resist! Stop the madness! Gather your resilience and kick that multitask monster out the door. The hard fact is that attempting to multitask correlates with low productivity and cognitive impairment.

As any neighborhood neuroscientist will attest, the brain can focus on only one thing at a time. It is incapable of simultaneously processing separate streams of information. What we call multitasking is actually task-switching—moving rapidly and ineffectively among tasks, Dr. Eyal Ophir, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, explains. Similarly, Dr. Earl Miller at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says: “You cannot focus on one [task] while doing [an]other. That’s because of what’s called interference between the two tasks. . . . People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves. The brain is very good at deluding itself.”

Most defenders of multitasking do not grasp its actual meaning. I don’t intend this as a slam. Multitaskers are only halfway paying attention to what I’m saying anyway.

Some folks angrily retort, “I can hold a conversation and empty the dishwasher. I can listen to the radio and drive! That’s multitasking.” I admire their feisty spirit. That said, Dr. David Meyer can clear things up: “Under most conditions, the brain simply cannot do two complex tasks at the same time. It can happen only when the two tasks . . . don’t compete with each other for the same mental resources.” In other words, engaging in two unrelated tasks at the same time when at least one does not demand conscious effort is not multitasking.

Multitasking—constantly switching between tasks—weakens our ability to concentrate. Repeatedly dropping and picking up a mental thread results in greater mental fatigue and more mistakes than deep immersion in a single task.

And so-called multitasking behavior “leads to a lower capacity for cognitive processing and precludes deeper learning,” as a recent study reported. Constantly loading too many competing stimuli shrinks the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala takes over, flooding the brain with negative emotions such as fear, aggression, and anxiety.

As gray matter shrinks, we become cognitively impaired. Doing too much results, quite literally, in being unable to think clearly. Extreme busyness is associated with decreased brain tissue in areas responsible for regulation of thoughts and feelings.

MRIs reveal images of the brain struggling between competing tasks, overwhelmed by dueling demands. Attempting to multitask releases cortisol, the “stress hormone,” diminishing the ability to process information. Stress associated with trying to multitask shrinks brain neurons, reduces problem solving, and decreases emotional regulation, resilience, and impulse control.

Help is at hand. The brain’s executive system in the frontal lobe can assist in suppressing irrelevant information. Because our executive system determines what input is extraneous and where to direct our attention, we can achieve our goals by learning to reduce distractions, by singletasking. This is an acquirable skill, one that you—Hey! I’m talking to you!—can achieve. Read on.

Singletasking Tactics

Singletasking requires committing to your choices. Immersing yourself. Addressing one thing at a time to the exclusion of other demands in the present moment. You can handle your next task after working on this one. This does not require completion of the initial task, just the end of the current session of time dedicated to it.

The first step is awareness. Notice where your thoughts dally when you are traveling to work, starting to fall asleep, in an idle moment before a meeting, waiting in line. Does a particular thorn in your side from the past crop up? Or do you have a habitual concern about a future turn life may take? Remind yourself that mulling over the past and envisioning alarming futures is not only fruitless; it keeps us from throwing our presence into this moment, right here. We can’t change the past, predict the future, or control other people. We can only singletask in the moment to make the most positive contribution to our lives, our work, and the world swirling all around.

Recollect a recent meeting you attended. Was your mind elsewhere? The next time you attend a meeting, practice being where you are. Synchronize your mind and body. Be present. Decide what matters most to you in a given situation, and commit.

Singletasking does not require discarding thoughts that are not aligned with your current endeavor. Instead, adopt a practice that enables you to place unrelated insights aside until the time comes to redirect your mind.

Perhaps you are familiar with the concept of a “parking lot” in meetings. Perhaps, at a meeting designated to discuss a new reporting structure, someone brings up the need for biannual performance reviews. A few more tenuously related subjects are mentioned, and you become collectively gridlocked in a snarl of topics.

The clock ticks ominously overhead.

Enter the parking lot, a flip chart or whiteboard upon which the meeting facilitator makes a list of raised topics that are best set aside for a more appropriate time. You can adapt this technique when working independently, to focus on your current task without allowing your thoughts to become sidetracked.

When embarking on a task, create a handy designated place to notate items for your own parking lot—a Notes page on your smartphone, say, or a notebook. (I do not recommend Post-its®, the backs of receipts, or envelopes from discarded junk mail. I learned this the hard way.)

When an idea strikes, why not just hope you’ll remember it later? Because if it’s on your mind, your mind isn’t clear.

Pausing to write down an ancillary thought does not lessen your commitment to singletasking. Let’s say you are working in a room with natural light in the late afternoon and the sun begins to set. The room darkens. Do you hunker down, thinking, “I won’t turn on the light, as I am intent on my work,” or do you briefly stand to flip the light switch and return to your task, better equipped to work without squinting? At times, taking an idea out of your head and onto a page is necessary to maintain full concentration.

Separation is another useful tactic in a world of devices that combine many functions. Technology isn’t the problem. It’s your fingers and thumbs doing the tapping.

Let’s say you’re sitting at your desk, on a business call. You lean back in your chair, facing your desktop. An instant message darts across your screen. Some colleagues are picking up lunch down the street; do you want anything? You quickly type a lunch order. At that moment you hear, “Do you think that setup will work?” Unfortunately, you have no recollection of the statement that preceded the question. And your request to repeat the setup will not exactly enhance your reputation for competence.

I am not suggesting that you stoically resist the urge to reply to incoming messages. But you can create “fences” to prevent potential distractions from reaching you when you’re occupied elsewhere.

When I need to concentrate on a meeting, phone call, project, or any critical task, I mitigate distractions before they happen. I mute all ringers, chimes, and pings and keep them muted most of the time. I also turn off visual alerts and social media messaging. If you prefer to leave them on, then cover up, turn aside, or turn off your screens during meetings or scheduled calls. No peeking. And I tidy up my desk—a mess is also a distraction.

Let’s say you want to singletask but don’t have much time to devote to a phone call. Easy. Simply let the caller know up front: “I’m glad we’ve touched base. I have fifteen minutes to discuss the plan for tomorrow’s meeting.” Give a gentle reminder when you have five. Then provide complete single-mindedness during this brief conversation.

It is infinitely superior to be fully present on a brief call than partially present on a long one. In the process, you are demonstrating respect for the other person’s time.

Similar techniques can be employed when singletasking on your computer. Though covering your screen is not an option in this circumstance, you can still turn off auditory and visual alerts. Keep open window tabs to a minimum. Notify colleagues that you are temporarily unreachable. Resist the urge to make or receive phone calls during the time designated for this project.

Also, you might try clustertasking. What related tasks do you do several times during an average workday (think reading and responding to messages, taking items to colleagues’ offices, and returning phone calls, for instance)? Do similar tasks in clusters one to three times a day; decide how long you will clustertask; set an alarm to remind you when to stop; and avoid engaging in these tasks outside the designated time.

Get to know your devices. Learn what internal functions or apps exist to assist you in your dedication to a singletasked lifestyle. For instance, do you have a Favorites or Groups feature that allows you to screen for only family messages? The Do Not Disturb option is standard on most devices and is quite useful. Also, you can consider options to disallow pop-up messages on your home screen.

Other tactics include dedicating a mere three to five minutes at the start of each workday to organizing your to-do list, which can transform your entire day into one that is proactive rather than reactive, and creating a work schedule for your weekly obligations with at least two open half-hour blocks of time each day to clustertask and to be available for unexpected events and/or for singletasking toward completion of long-term projects. Consider those “unscheduled” blocks to be real appointments that can’t be double-booked unless something urgent pops up.

Finally, note that all this is just to get you jump-started. You’re going to beat this thing!

Devora Zack is CEO of Only Connect Consulting, Inc., whose clients include Cornell University, Mensa, Smithsonian, London Business School, and the US Department of Education. This article is derived from her new book, Singletasking: Get More Done—One Thing at a Time, from Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. To learn more: bkconnection.com.

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