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Easy New Year’s Resolutions, Part 2: Give Up Multitasking

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by Ryan Anderson

on 02 January, 2015

We want to face New Years’ resolutions differently this year. Instead of pretending you’ve got the might of Hercules or discipline of a monk, we’re giving you back-up to do the things you already secretly wanted to do — but didn’t think you could get away with. And don’t worry — it will improve your performance too.

We’ve already given you permission to indulge in high-quality rest. Now we’d like to recommend that you resolve to let go of another life stresser. This stressful habit might give you the appearance — and even personal sensation — of efficiency, but in reality it’s hurting your work.

Give Up Multitasking

The corporate world is starting to recognize that interruptions are a nightmare of inefficiency. An article in the International Journal of Stress Management outlines the nightmare for us. Researchers estimate that interruptions at work consume an average of 2.1 hours per day for each worker — meaning that if you weren’t interrupted, you would get two hours of your time back every day. On the level of the U.S. economy, this adds up to about $588 billion dollars per year in lost productivity. Much of all this lost time results from the fact that even with tiny interruptions, on average we require more than twenty minutes to get back to our task, and even longer to enter the state of flow we had before the interruption.

This research also details the increased stress, anxiety, and decreased physical well-being that is the result of being interrupted — showing that interruptions leave people as exhausted at the end of the workday as they would be if they had a significantly heavier workload.

So how does this relate to multitasking? Much of our multitasking is an attempt to deal with interruptions (we’ll answer the interrupting phone while we try to finish this email). But even when we’re completely alone, multitasking is essentially a continuous process of interrupting ourselves.

Unless your brain is very unusual (on the order of the musical savant who can play four orchestral symphonies simultaneously in his head), then it isn’t built for doing two tasks at once. We can do two things at once only if one of those tasks is as simple and natural to us as chewing food — otherwise, all we’re doing is subjecting ourselves to constant distraction. (Tellingly, the Vanderbilt University researchers who discovered this “neural bottleneck” have given up all cell phone use while driving — even with a headset).

multitasking is essentially a continuous process of interrupting ourselves.

UCLA psychology professor Russell Poldrack warns in an interview: “We have to be aware that there is a cost to the way that our society is changing, that humans are not built to work this way. We’re really built to focus.” Edward M. Hallowell, a psychiatrist who authored CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! agrees that we simply lack the neural capacity to achieve the multitasking goals we set ourselves. He states: “Multitasking is shifting focus from one task to another in rapid succession. It gives the illusion that we’re simultaneously tasking, but we’re really not. It’s like playing tennis with three balls.”

How bad are we at this souped-up tennis game? Look at some of the science and you’ll decide we shouldn’t even use the word “multitasking” anymore, since it carries the positive connotation of actually getting many things done. Some research suggests thatrapidly switching between tasks can eat up as much as 40% of our workday. Another,funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, found that being distracted by email and phone calls made workers more stupid. Workers’ drops in IQ while they were “multitasking” was more than twice the fall experienced by marijuana smokers. If you wouldn’t trust a task to someone who was completely high — then don’t attempt it while multitasking.

With findings like that, you should begin to mentally replace each mention of the word “multitasking” with the phrase “suffering from information overload.”

That’s the direction Dr. Hallowell takes in an article published in the Harvard Business Review, titled “Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform.” Here he refers to the attempt at multitasking as “attention deficit trait.” While attention deficit disorder is a neurological disorder with a genetic component, “attention deficit trait” is something we develop completely from our environment. “Like a traffic jam, ADT is an artifact of modern life.” And the dangers are real — as your brain becomes increasingly jammed, it “gradually loses its capacity to attend fully and thoroughly to anything.” Meanwhile, the one suffering from ADT “feels a constant low level of panic and guilt,” becoming “increasingly hurried, curt, peremptory, and unfocused, while pretending that every is fine.”

you should begin to mentally replace each mention of the word “multitasking” with the phrase “suffering from information overload.”

If you’re one of those people who can convince even yourself that everything is fine — that you’re one of the few who can actually handle multitasking — then the prospect is even more bleak.

The National Academy of Sciences published research designed to rate whether people were skilled at multitasking or not. They assumed that those who do it often would be better at it. They were shocked to find exactly the opposite: people who frequently multitask are worse at it than those who don’t. Heavy multitaskers had essentially primed their brains for constant distraction, repeatedly directing their attention to the least relevant information. Those who didn’t multitask much, performed much better. They had protected their ability to focus, which is challenged most in multitasking environments.

As the late Stanford University professor Clifford Nass put it, “multitaskers are terrible at every single aspect of multitasking. They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information, they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized, and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.”

So knowing all of this, why would we still do it? After all, it’s only giving us “guilt and pain” — you’d think we’d be overjoyed to give it up. One obvious answer is that many workplaces still consider it a virtue. Nass reported in a PBS interview that he’s found the demand for multitasking is only increasing in workplaces — it’s even a common requirement built into job descriptions. Some even go so far as to institute a culture of interruptions, requiring each employee to respond to an email within fifteen minutes or always respond to inter-office chats. Unfortunately, the business world is straying far from science on this one (perhaps because they’re doing too many things at once to pay attention to its consequences).

But we can’t blame it all on the bosses — the drive to multitask goes deeper. Research out of Ohio State University presents the ominous specter of multitasking addiction. They found that even when it made their performance suffer, research participants continued to multitask because they found it “emotionally fulfilling.” Even those who were hurting themselves most believed that they were accomplishing more. Along with that pain and guilt, the activity gives us a satisfying sense of “busyness,” until eventually even those minuscule pauses of waiting for a website to load or a computer to boot up becomes unbearable without another activity to fill the time.

In this multitasking spiral, our ability to focus erodes more and more.

To escape from the spiral, we suggest that you cast off the pain and guilt, get rid of unrealistic expectations, and embrace the focus of a single task. Of course, blocking out all interruptions — coming from others or our own distractible brain — is going to be impossible. But we are able to at least begin by monitoring the quality of those interruptions. Make a note as to whether they are truly time-sensitive and important, or if we’re hijacking our own performance by training our brains to distract themselves.

the activity gives us a satisfying sense of “busyness,” until eventually even those minuscule pauses of waiting for a website to load or a computer to boot up becomes unbearable without another activity to fill the time.

As the New Year begins, try short bouts without multitasking. You might find you’re like Peter Bregerman at the Harvard Business Review, who went a week without multitasking and found no downside to the endeavor. He reports he made more progress with less stress, and started enjoying more aspects of his life.

Instead of the mythical multitasker, have as your inspiration someone like Isaac Newton, who said that if he had made any discoveries, it was “owing more to patient attention than to any other talent.”

Resolve to single-task more, and enjoy the growth of your own patient attention.