I’m hungry for productivity. I want ways to get more done in less time. We all do. Time is one of our most limited resources in the day and age. The are thousands of articles, books, systems, workshops and products geared toward making us more productive. One of the things we all do to get more done is multitask. Whether it’s geared toward increasing work output or just that we’re afraid we’ll miss something if we don’t, we tend to multitask our way through life.
We listen to podcasts or television while we cook. We scroll facebook while we watch Netflix. We talk or listen while we drive or walk. We listen to a webinar while we answer emails. We email while we’re in a meeting. My son watches or listens to YouTube while he plays games on his computer. And he’s not alone.
Dr. Clifford Nass, a psychology professor at Stanford University, says (and I’m quoting from an interview on NPR), “the top 25 percent of Stanford students are using four or more media at one time whenever they're using media. So when they're writing a paper, they're also Facebooking, listening to music, texting, Twittering, et cetera. And that's something that just couldn't happen in previous generations even if we wanted it to.”
Lest you think this is just a new media problem or a bash technology episode, it’s not. This quote, “To do two things at once is to do neither.” Wasn’t said by a 21st-century researcher. It’s attributed to Publilius Syrus, a Roman slave in the first century B.C. Obviously, this issue of multitasking has been around long before smartphones. I routinely walked around with an open book in front of my face reading when I was a kid. I know this has always been an issue for me. Let’s take the lid off though and see how effective it actually is.
First, I need to say that you can go ahead and consider yourself a fantastic multi-tasker. You absolutely are. Supremely talented even. Because you’re breathing, moving, walking, reaching, digesting your lunch, doing all sorts of things that are involuntary and second nature while you’re accomplishing tasks that take more thought.
It’s the more complex tasks, the ones that take more thought that tend to trip us up, though. We think we can do several of those at the same time. But, we actually can’t. I mean it might look like I’m listening to a podcast and cooking a new recipe for dinner, but I’m actually not multi-tasking. I’m switch-tasking. My brain is doing only one of those things at the same time. It’s switching back and forth between the two tasks. It’s doing so pretty quickly, but it’s only actually processing information from one of those activities at a time. If I really think about that, I know it’s true.
If I’m doing something I don’t use a recipe for, something like a stir-fry, where I’m just chopping vegetables and not measuring, reading a recipe or following a real instructional list, it’s much easier to listen to something and cook. There’s a good chance I’m more distracted than I think I am though because I’ll routinely forget to include something I’d intended to.
If I’m following a recipe, though, it’s much tougher. I’ll re-read. I’ll lose track of where I am, I’ll realize that I’ve either done one or the other thing. I’ve either read and understood the recipe or I’ve listened to the audio. I’ll often miss audio while I’m paying attention to the recipe or have to re-read the recipe because I was paying attention to the audio.
Generally, a loss in productivity or forgetting to put the mushrooms in a stir-fry just means dinner takes a little longer to cook and I have mushrooms for an omelet in the morning. But, that loss of productivity is a bigger deal at work.
Conservative estimates are that we have a 40% loss in productivity when we multitask. We might think we’re being more efficient, but we’re not. A 40% loss. That’s a big deal.
Actually, the news is worse than that. Studies show that multitasking results not only in the 40% reduction in productivity, but also higher cortisol or stress levels, up to a 10 or 15 point drop in IQ (that’s more than smoking weed by the way), more mistakes, decreased memory function, higher anxiety, impaired creativity, an inability to reach or maintain a flow state, and an inability to process visual input.
So, I suppose, if you have more productivity, creativity, and IQ than you need, or if you could use more stress, mistakes, and anxiety, I’d say, go ahead. Multitask to your heart’s content. But, for the rest of us mere mortals, we need to seriously re-think some habits and approaches to our work.
Here are several suggestions for reducing multitasking.
Block out specific time for single activities. Spend a specific amount of time on one task. Be ruthless. Do whatever you need to do to not switch tasks. This will be really tough, but, it does get easier with practice.
Batch process activities. Rather than return phone calls as they happen, set aside time to do them all at once. Rather than choose your meals for the week during each day, choose all your meals for the week at a specific time on Sunday evening. This is an efficiency practice. A productivity hack. But, the relationship to today’s topic is that you’re doing only that thing at that time. By batching them together you don’t have the start-stop time that your brain needs to end one task and start another. You don’t incur the productivity losses that switching tasks causes.
Do not leave your inbox open all the time. Choose a twenty-minute window to do all your email. This is batch processing and blocked out time all at once, but email is such a major offender in the realm of multitasking, that it’s worth calling it out.
Eliminate your phone and laptop notifications. Turn the sounds off. Wean yourself from those little red circles or the sounds that trigger a reach for the phone every single time someone wants to share a piano-playing cat video with you.
And lastly, let’s talk about driving for just a moment. I could spend an entire episode here, but I’m not, You already know this. I’m just going to remind you and point a few things out. Distracted driving is deadly. If you wouldn’t drive drunk, don’t drive distracted.
From distraction.gov comes this statistic: Five seconds is the average time your eyes are off the road while texting. When traveling at 55mph, that’s enough time to cover the length of a football field essentially blindfolded.
It’s not just texting, being on social media, or checking email. It’s talking on the phone as well. The University of Utah published a statistic that says that “Using a cell phone while driving, whether it’s hand-held or hands-free, delays a driver’s reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent”
If you’re like me and have said that talking on a cell phone is no different than talking to passengers, well, we’re wrong. Studies show that conversations with people in the same vehicle are markedly different and less distracting than cell phone conversations due to the behavior of both the passengers and the drivers in those conversations.
You might be thinking right now, “This whole episode doesn’t apply to me. I’m really good at multitasking.” I’m here to burst your bubble. Are you Ready?
The Stanford psychologist I quoted earlier, Dr. Clifford Nass, says,
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…we have scales that allow us to divide up people into people who multitask all the time and people who rarely do, and the differences are remarkable. People who multitask all the time can't filter out irrelevancy. They can't manage a working memory. They're chronically distracted.
Plus, people who think they are good at multitasking generally have a lower capacity for simultaneous thought. They’re actually less good at it than people who consider themselves less skilled. So, if you’ve been thinking all along that you’re the exception, the odds are overwhelming that you’re not.
I wish I’d done this experiment last week, but I didn’t. I ran across an article by Peter Bregman in The Harvard Business Review detailing a week-long experiment on himself. He tried to completely eliminate multitasking and see what happened. I’m going to quickly summarize the six things he says he learned.
I think that’s really interesting. It’s not a generic study. It’s a real guy with a real family and real work projects who surprised himself by bearing out the results of the science.
Could you do it? Could you go a whole week without multitasking? Could you go a day? One car trip?
I challenge you to try.