The Illusion of Multitasking

For decades I believed that women can multitask, whereas men can only handle one task at a time.Obviously, this made women more talented. While a woman might be simultaneously making dinner, planning her kid’s lunches for school the next day, painting the ceiling and answering the phone, a man would be pleading for quiet and space so he could attempt to fry a single egg successfully. But I was wrong…Because science now shows that multitasking is actually impossible… and it turns out that women are actually doing themselves a disservice.Men and women’s brains are different, but regardless of gender, our brains are not wired to handle multitasking — and we can’t train them to be more accomplished at juggling many tasks at once. And, although the idea that ‘women are better multitaskers than men’ has been popular, there’s no data available to support claims of a real sex difference.Perhaps the myth itself has created the scenario of the juggling woman. There’s no doubt that women do take on many things at once, and men tend to behave as if they have a clipboard stapled to their heads. It’s possible, though, that this idea comes from cultural inequality where, for decades, the man had a single task and ‘went to work’… and the woman had to do everything else: nurture and educate the children, take care of the house, and find ways to bring in extra cash, like taking in laundry.For years, I was in awe of those who juggle several tasks at once, not realizing that they were being incredibly inefficient in all of them. I’ve even chastised myself for being someone who can only really do one thing at a time. When I’m writing and Lyn asks me a question like, ‘What shall we have for dinner?’ I don’t even register her voice because I’m so focused on my writing. She gets frustrated with me and has to raise the ante with a loud, ‘Hellooooo… anyone home?’ Even then I don’t answer until I finish writing the last thought in my head. (I’ve often felt bad about this, but research shows I’m actually doing things the right way, one task at a time.)The Fallacy of MultitaskingWhen you think you’re multitasking, you’re actually doing what psychologists call context-switching, which means you’re quickly switching back-and-forth between different tasks, rather than doing them at the same timeIt feels like multitasking, but it’s just highly inefficient ‘single tasking’ on two things.How inefficient? Research shows your error rate goes up 50 percent and takes you twice as long to do things. (So if you see someone driving and texting at the same time, best not to linger too long.). The book Brain Rules by John Medina explains just how detrimental “multitasking” can be: ‘Because we don’t understand how our brains work we try to do dumb things. We try to talk on our cell phones and drive at the same time even though it is literally impossible for our brains to multitask when it comes to paying attention.’ When the brain tries to do two things at once, it divides and conquers, dedicating half of your gray matter to each task. When your brain handles a single task, the prefrontal cortex plays a big role. The anterior part of this brain region forms the goal or intention — for example, ‘I need to call my manufacturing vendor for a timeline.’ The posterior prefrontal cortex talks to the rest of the brain so that your hand reaches toward the phone and your mind knows a call is about to be made.In one study of volunteers, they found that when a second task was required, the brain ‘split up’ with each hemisphere working alone on a task. It was so overloaded by the second task, it couldn’t perform at full capacity, because it needed to split its resources. When a third task was added, the volunteers’ results plummeted: The triple-task jugglers consistently forgot one of their tasks. They also made 3 times as many errors as they did while dual-tasking.Women, take note…Learn to Single TaskIf you’ve been indoctrinated to think that you can multitask and that it’s a good thing to juggle several tasks at once, you might want to reconsider.To work efficiently, you have to single task… and that’s going to be quite a change in habit for you. Yes, you have to manage all the tasks, but you can only do so efficiently if you take them one at a time. It’s one of the most critical skills to master in business. You need discipline and lists to work on one task at a time. It doesn’t matter that you oversee 4 or 5 business functions. What matters is what I call ‘task discipline.’Let’s say you have issues with marketing and manufacturing at the same time. When you’re aware that both need attention, your tendency is to try to resolve both at the same time. You might call your manufacturing vendor while searching for marketing consultants online.The better response is what I call ‘parking’ the tasks — write each task on a white board to ensure you don’t forget one. Parking the tasks instead of rushing to take them on all at once frees your mind from the stress of forgetting, which is often cited as one of the reasons people attempt multitasking in the first place. 

Once you have the list of tasks up on your white board, set about fixing the first task and strike it off the board when done. Then go to the next task. Old fashioned? Yes. Efficient? Very.

People who multitask are not being more productive —they just feel more emotionally satisfied from their work. Zhen Wang

Zhen Wang, a researcher in a recent study on multitasking, said that if we study with our books open, watch TV at the same time and text friends every so often, we get a great feeling of fulfillment. We’re getting all these things done at once, and we feel incredibly efficient. Unfortunately, exactly the opposite is the case. Students who engaged heavily in multitasking activities felt great, but their results were much worse than that of people who didn’t multitask.Of course, it doesn’t help that we humans have a tendency to compare ourselves… so, when we see someone who can type an email and make a phone call while writing a shopping list on the side, we think, “That’s incredible! I want to be able to do that too!”And the pressure is on…Here’s a short list of negative effects associated with ‘multitasking’:

  • Inefficient performance and overall performance decrease
  • Worse at filtering irrelevant information and switching between tasks
  • Longer task completion (often double the time)
  • Predisposed to error (errors go way up)

Simply put, your brain can’t fully focus if it’s trying to multitask.The only exception is listening to music while we work or play. Stanford Professor Clifford Nass says “In the case of music, it’s a little different. We have a special part of our brain for music, so we can listen to music while we do other things.”So, if you’re a business owner, let me give you some vital advice…Just. Don’t. Do. It. Adopt Task Discipline Instead.Task Discipline essentially means that when you think of something that needs doing, if your immediate reaction is to write it on a list, you’ve got what it takes to succeed. On the other hand, if your immediate reaction is to tell yourself you’ll remember it later, then you don’t have task-discipline, and your business success will suffer accordingly.Simple, right?Don’t be fooled.

Tips for Developing Task Discipline1. At the end of every day, write out a to-do list for the next day, and set it to priorities. This will reduce any stress around the fear of forgetting something and have the added benefit of feeling more relaxed in the evening. Your family will stop complaining about you being so distracted all the time. By writing the list you’re making a subtle commitment to perform the tasks. It’s your disciplined commitment to ensure a productive day tomorrow.2. When you enter your workspace the next day, review the list and start the first task immediately. This is an essential discipline. Don’t be tempted to check emails, voicemail, or texts first, as this will scatter your focus in 100 different directions. Get that first task done before you give in to the temptation to do anything else. This is particularly important when you consider the impact of time zones. It’s common to think you have to start your day playing catch up with other zones where the day has already begun. When you enter the office, you may already have half a day’s communications to respond to. Avoid the temptation to be distracted by that. Get task #1 done first. You’ll find this advice in many biographies and self-help books. It’s good advice. And it works. 3. Depending on your type of business, keep a list of customer or client follow-up tasks. We all try to remember promises we’ve made. So, because customer satisfaction is your top priority, whenever you create a need for follow-through, write it on a list and in detail, and then schedule it on a calendar. Every day you should review this “follow-through” list and start checking off the tasks. 4. Finish What You Start. We’ve all experienced checking into a hotel or airport and the person supposedly helping us takes a phone call in the middle of the process. It’s as if a wall suddenly goes up, and although we can still see the receptionist, we might as well be invisible to them. They didn’t finish what they started before moving onto another task, and the impact is to offend us. When something different calls for your attention, it’s typical to stop what you’re doing and turn your attention to the intrusion instead. This habit is exacerbated when you work from home because you can find the isolation or loneliness difficult to deal with. We might even welcome the interruption because of it.If the phone rings or your email alert interrupts while you’re working on your project, avoid the temptation to drop what you’re doing in order to answer the phone or read the email. The mind says it’s just a quick distraction, but if you respond you can very quickly lose focus on the task you started. When you pick an important task from your “to-do” list, start it and finish it. Don’t allow any interruptions or distractions, no matter how lonely you may feel at that time(Personally, I have notifications switched off on all my devices. It helps avoid the temptation to drop what I’m doing to answer the phone or read a text.)

While it’s true that this type of self-discipline doesn’t come naturally to most people… it’s a vital characteristic for the single-person business owner.Cheers, Trevor 

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