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This Is Your Brain. This Is Your Brain on Multitasking

6 minute read
Erika Morphy avatar
Many people delude themselves into believing that doing three things at a time is a sign of efficiency.

Amy Finlay had always struggled with getting too distracted from multitasking, so she tried a succession of remedies to keep the problem to a minimum. It took some trial-and-error, the co-founder and web creator of Edinburgh IFA said, but eventually she hit on a winning formula. 

First she tried writing a list of tasks that she needed to accomplish the next day at the end of every working day. This took about 15 minutes. She would stick this piece of paper on her desk so it was always in view. “I simply would not allow myself to deviate from the list,” she said. “The task at hand gets completed and ticked off before I think about moving on to anything else.” 

This helped, but she continued to be distracted, mostly by emails. So she began muting her emails and only checking on them at three scheduled times per day in case there is something urgent.

“This means I am not constantly being disturbed and having my focus broken, which in the past would always mean me looking at emails and thinking about other things that need done. Now I have laser focus on my daily list and the increase in productivity has been huge,” she said. Finlay was lucky. She not only recognized the source of her distraction but with a combination of low and some high-tech she managed to get it under control. 

Multitasking is seen as a must-have for workers to power through a day that is marked by multiple needs all crying out for attention, various digital devices and a continually-connected workday. At one time it was a skill to be lauded; now it is recognized that multitasking can, in fact, hurt productivity. 

Multitasking and Your Brain

Several years ago, a Hewlett Packard study conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry found that workers distracted by incoming email and phone calls saw a 10-point fall in their IQ, according to a report in the BBC.  More than half of the 1,100 respondents said they would respond to an email "immediately," with 21% admitting they would interrupt a meeting to do so.

Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT, has also conducted numerous studies on multitasking, finding it can ruin productivity, disrupt creative thoughts and lead people to make more mistakes.

He explained to Fortune magazine that the brain perceives the world as if through a wide-angle camera lens, with the eyes darting about making small movements that scan the visual information, with a small patch of sharp focus in the center. Then, the snippets of sharp focus images are knitted together, with the brain filling in the gaps, thus creating a seamless stream.

“The same is true for multitasking,” Miller told Fortune. “When we toggle between tasks, the process often feels seamless — but in reality, it requires a series of small shifts.”

These studies have had a cumulative effect on our thinking about multitasking. Now the theory is that while multitasking has all the makings of a productivity hack, it can be heavily counter-productive, said Ganes Kesari, co-founder, head of Analytics & AI Labs at Gramener. “Many people delude themselves that doing three things at a time is a sign of efficiency,” he continued. “Unfortunately, the costs of context-switching lead to quicker exhaustion and a net wastage of time.” 

Related Article: Information Overload Is Nothing New

Low-Tech Steps vs. High Tech Solutions

Multitasking has gotten worse in recent years with the advent of electronic devices and countless apps, many of which, ironically, are designed to save on productivity. 

While some of these apps, when judiciously applied, can cut down on multitasking, low-tech methods also pack a powerful punch and like Finlay’s example shows, are often the ones that people turn to first. 

Multitasking is a huge issue for Miguel A. Suro, a Miami attorney and lifestyle writer at The Rich Miser, a site that he runs with his wife Lily Rodriguez. “I've got to balance two jobs: lawyer and writer. Plus, I have family responsibilities, with an infant daughter.”

One method he uses is to do tasks successively in short bursts of concentration, instead of multitasking by tackling several tasks simultaneously. “For instance, work on Project A for one hour, then Project B for an hour, then Project C, etc,” he said. “I find that this helps reduce boredom and the temptation to distract yourself, thereby making you more efficient and productive.”

Related Article: Is the Solution to Information Overload More Technology?

Learning Opportunities

Create a Unitasking Environment 

Suro also suggested unsubscribing from unnecessary email and app notifications and resisting the temptation to respond right away to the necessary emails or phone calls. “By not answering people right away, you avoid conditioning them to expect an immediate answer from you. You also encourage them to be resourceful and resolve problems themselves, rather than seeking help for simple matters,” he said. 

Indeed, tuning out distractions by whatever way possible is a popular piece of advice.

Productivity specialist Melissa Gratias said that while it is not realistic to eliminate distractions altogether, they can be reduced. “Turn off all of the visual and auditory notifications on your computer and phone. Use earbuds and listen to white noise so that conversations around you will be less bothersome. If you have an office door, close it for a set amount of time every day.” 

In short, she said, do what you can to create the best environment for focusing on a single task at a time.

Another tip she offered: Group similar tasks together. “Batch processing is a productivity-improvement technique that also helps reduce multitasking. If we group small, but similar tasks together, such as returning phone calls, paying bills or filing, we are less likely to allow those tasks to be performed in a multitasking scenario.”

Related Article: Conquer Your Workplace Distractions

Sometimes You Need a Formal Anti-Multitasking Plan 

Sometimes multitasking is so ingrained nothing short of a formal plan can dislodge it. 

Nextpat founder Priya Jindal told of the time when, as a manager in the government, he decided his staff was too frequently being called upon to do small things at any time and it took away from doing the real work. “What we did was implement a Deep Work initiative,” explained, with the basic premise being that the team needed to detail out what it should be doing with its time and where was the biggest bang for its buck was.

“We created a list of goals for each staff member along with deadlines. We figured out when we hit flow and had the quietest times and blocked those off on our calendars, on our signature blocks, and we would sign off of email and instant messaging and the internet at those times. I also procured an office so that they could disappear from the cube and not get interrupted.”

The upshot, Jindal said: “The increase we saw in our productivity was immense.”