I’m a busy CEO, so I’m always looking for ways to get more done.
I thought: Why not see if I could get better at multitasking?
My thinking was if I could find a smarter way to do that, then I’d definitely be able to get more done.
But is it true? Does improving multitasking drive enhanced productivity?
More importantly, is it possible to multitask successfully at all?
So, I’ve done some research to provide you with the answers.
What I found really shocked me.
I discovered that multitasking can shorten your life and might even kill you.
Not only that, but multitasking is responsible for ten huge problems which you can avoid by implementing some of the advice in this post.
I’ve rounded up some of the best (actionable) advice from experts from around the world to help you.
Want even more time management tips and hacks?
Take a look at this post where I reveal what top time management experts most frequently do to be more productive.
About The 5 Research Studies Used In This Post…
So, where did I get all my information from, anyway?
The answer is these five studies (plus my own experiments).
- Cognitive control in media multitaskers.
- Executive control of cognitive processes in task switching.
- Task Switching: A PDP Model
- The costs of a predictable switch between simple cognitive tasks.
This paper has a very useful summary of the evidence.
Why Multitasking Is Bad For You (What The Research Reveals)
After reviewing what the evidence contained in these papers says, here is what I found.
There are ten huge problems with multitasking. I've summarised them below.
When you've checked out the problems, I've also got some advice that will help you avoid the worst effects. Let's go…
I'll start with the problems which multitasking causes.
If you don't want to worry about this or the evidence which underpins it, click the 'WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT' button below. It'll take you straight to the solutions.
You can also quickly skim the infographic below which summarises the problems.
It's a long post, so use the navigation to get around.
Problem 1: You’re Draining Your Battery Flat
What you think of as multitasking is actually task switching. A useful way of visualising this is to think of your brain’s activities as a pie chart.
Whatever you’re working on will take up most that pie, leaving very little left for other things, beyond functions which are automatic like chewing, swallowing or walking.
Researchers call this ‘restricted attentional capacity’.
The problem is that darting backwards and forwards between tasks reduces your productivity. This because you expend mental resources on the change itself.
Your brain runs on glucose and is exceptionally greedy. As you switch around your attention, you run down your glucose store, which makes your brain less efficient and creates the feeling of being tired.
Problem 2: Multitasking Is Stressful
Daniel J Levitan
Neuroscientist, Dan Levitan, has shown that multitasking increases the levels of cortisol and adrenaline in your bloodstream.
These are both fight or flight hormones, designed to save you from a threat.
Talk about a self-inflicted injury.
University of California Irvine researchers also found that employees exposed to a steady stream of email messages stayed in a perpetual ‘high alert’ with higher heart rates. Those without the same access to email did less multitasking and were less stressed because of it.
Problem 3: Multitasking Slows You Down
It takes time to get ‘into the zone’ each time you switch. Every time you change focus, it takes a moment or two for your brain to crank back up again.
Over a day, this can lead to a surprising amount of lost time.
In fact, while your brain is struggling to change attention, it also finds it hard to let go of its current focus. It will take you longer to complete two projects if you continually switch between them, than if you focus on one at a time.
Interestingly, if you’re driving a car, it will take you longer to get to your destination if you are talking (handsfree) on your mobile phone while you drive according to a University of Utah study.
Attempting to multitask while driving is also hazardous (see below).
Researchers have documented a cascade effect of negative outcomes which flow from multitasking, all of which will slow you down.
- As you’ve already seen, the act of task switching slows you down, but it also tires you out.
- A tired brain is more likely to make mistakes, which only have to be corrected later, further dragging down your performance.
- In addition, your short-term memory is impaired when you multitask, which means you’ll not retain key information.
- Unfortunately, it's then more likely that you’ll ‘lose your place’ and have to retrace your steps.
- Researchers have shown that when you’re multitasking your brain processes and stores information in less useful ways. Information obtained when multitasking will make it less likely that you will be able to extend or extrapolate from it in the normal way, which slows down attempts to draw conclusions or make decisions.
- Finally, it is also clear that media multitasking while studying makes student's grades get worse.
Problem 4: Multitasking Can Be Dangerous
Driver distraction is now a leading cause of injury and death on the road. The US National Safety Council estimates that 21% of all crashes involved taking on cell phones.
Every year there are between 32,000 and 48,000 people killed on the roads in the US. That means this year, up to 10,000 people will be killed as a consequence of using their mobile phone while driving.
Mobile phones distract drivers in two ways.
- Physical Distraction. Physical distractions are caused by for example reaching for or operating the handset.
- Cognitive distraction. Cognitive distractions occur when the driver diverts his/her attention from driving to the conversation. As we’ve already seen, none of us can really do more than one task at a time.
Problem 5: Multitasking Makes You Less Smart
Dr Glenn Wilson showed that people who multitask dropped their IQ scores by 10 points.
Dropping ten points is the equivalent of what happens when you miss a whole night’s sleep and more than double the 4 point drop in score caused by smoking marijuana. Emails were a particular problem identified in the study.
Worryingly, the world now exchanges 205 billion emails each day. If you don’t get on top of this monster, you’re opening the door to permanent distraction.
Not only that, but your ability to stay sharp and perform at your peak will diminish.
Problem 6: Multitasking Erodes Your Working Memory
You’ve probably experienced an occasion when your short-term memory let you down.
Short-term memory is sometimes called ‘working memory’ by researchers. It refers to your ability to hold and manipulate information in your mind for a period.
An example of this is when you’re given a phone number by a new colleague, which you then need to add to your Contact app on your phone. There are lots of other examples such as following the gist of a conversation or carrying out complex tasks.
Researchers at the University of California asked participants to look at a nature scene and hold it in their mind. While they did so, they were interrupted by a second image, a face. Participants were asked to determine its age and gender.
What they discovered is that when asked to recall the previous scene, older participants struggled to do so.
Using a fMRI scanner, the discovered that as we age our ability to disconnect from one mental process and engage with a new one, degrades.
It seems that attempting to multitask is one of the causes of so-called ‘senior moments.’
Problem 7: Multitasking Means You Might Miss Out
Multitasking means that you’re soaking up all of your brain’s resources in an attempt to juggle focus between tasks.
In addition to the other problems I’ve described, you also run the risk of missing out on essential experiences.
Take a look at the video below.
Did you notice the gorilla?
Maybe you’ve watched this video before, but the research still holds up. 50% of people never see the gorilla as they are focused on counting the number of passes.
There’s another excellent example of inattentional blindness which you can watch in the video below.
Its called The Money Tree experiment and shows people failing to notice money hanging from a tree.
Problem 8: Multitasking Can Make You Age Faster
Researchers have discovered that stress of whatever kind decreases the length of your telomeres.
Telomeres are a bit like the plastic tips on shoelaces, only they sit at the end of your chromosomes.
If you want to know how long you’re likely to live, you should get someone to measure the length of your telomeres (in reality, not a practical proposition).
There’s a great TED video about this here.
Every time a cell divides, your telomeres get a bit shorter. When your telomeres hit a threshold shortened length, the cell stops dividing and dies.
The problem is that stress accelerates this process — and as we’ve seen already, multitasking causes stress.
Want something else to consider?
If chronic stress leads to brain cell death, your cognitive functions will degrade.
The length of your telomeres is considered to be a better predictor of your risk of common age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer and diabetes than more conventional diagnostic tools.
So cutting down on your multitasking habit could actually keep you alive longer.
Talking about habit…
Problem 9: Multitasking Can Be Addictive
What’s the definition of addiction?
It’s something which:
- You can’t easily stop doing.
- You suffer withdrawal symptoms when you do stop.
- You’re aware of the downsides to your habit, but you carry on regardless.
Neuroscientists can identify the particular pattern of chemical processes which fuel your multitasking addiction.
Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, provides a burst of pleasure when you obtain your ‘fix.’ This dopamine fix is the same mechanism you see in other addictions like caffeine, or alcohol.
Your brain is wired to follow such signals, and so will push you to look for further opportunities to get your rush.
In Dr Daniel J. Levitin’s book The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, he is unequivocal — continually checking your Twitter or Facebook feed qualifies as a full-blown addiction.
By the way, if you're interested in the way your brain works and want to learn a bit more about how to use habits to make positive changes in your life, I've got some great book recommendations here.
Problem 10: Multitasking Damages Your Creativity
Multitasking hoovers up your brain’s resources as you’ve already seen.
One consequence of this hoarding of attention is that your ‘working memory’ is too busy to daydream or make a lateral move.
Many of your best ideas come when you’re able to allow your mind to wander. When you multitask you are denying yourself the potential to experience a Eureka moment when a sudden insight sparks a whole new line of thinking.
The theory of gravity came to Sir Isaac Newton in a moment of quiet reflection, while he was sitting under an apple tree. He didn’t discover it while simultaneously conducting an experiment and reading from a journal.
What Can You Do To Avoid Falling Into The Multitasking Trap?
Now that you've got the low down on the science, what can you do to protect yourself from the temptation to try and multitask?
I've got you covered.
Here are ten tips that can help you improve your focus and avoid the many pitfalls of multitasking.
Tip 1: Try The Pomodoro Technique
This is a technique that was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980’s. The technique is named Pomodoro after the tomato-shaped timer he had in his kitchen (Pomodoro is Italian for tomato).
The instructions for using this technique are very simple.
- Decide on the task or job that needs to be done.
- Set the Pomodoro timer going (it has a default of 25 minutes).
- Work on the task until it chimes and then out a mark on a piece of paper.
- If you have fewer than four checkmarks take a short break (5 minutes).
- If you have five checkmarks take a longer break (15-30 minutes).
The theory is that in these blocks of time, you aim to reduce interruptions and increase flow.
Each Pomodoro must be completed.
If it is interrupted, you start again. It’s a simple but powerful method. Because it is based on relatively short time slots, it is easier to commit to them and see them through.
You get a positive reinforcement each time you complete one too.
There are lots of apps which offer a digital tomato-timer. There are two example sites below.
Tip 2: Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation is 180 degrees in the opposite direction to multitasking. In many ways, it is the complete opposite mindset.
The work of mindfulness is to avoid being ‘lost in your thoughts.’
Have you ever driven all the way into work and realised that you’d done it ‘automatically’?
You’d completed all the tasks of driving without at any point being present while you carried them out.
If someone asked you if you’d noticed the large line of traffic you drove past, the chances are that you might not remember.
This is what it means to be lost in your thoughts.
Mindfulness training helps you to notice when this is happening so you can bring your attention back to what you are focusing on. It is a discipline that with practice can help you remain focused, without distraction on the task at hand.
The two apps below are ones that I've personally used and highly recommend.
Tip 3: Switch Off
One key to avoiding multitasking is to control distractions.
If you can lock down your focus, it is far more likely that you will be more productive.
It pays to switch off all of your electronic notifications on your devices. That way you won’t be tempted to look at your email when a banner pops across your screen.
You can also install apps to prevent yourself accessing sites like Facebook or Twitter. Here are a couple of recommendations.
"Create unrealistically short deadlines. Cut all meetings in half. Give yourself a third of the time you think you need to accomplish something."
He is right. If you know you’ve only got thirty minutes to finish preparing a presentation, you’re really not going to allow yourself to be interrupted by that incoming phone call
Although this sounds like it might be a more stressful way to work, it’s quite likely that this is more than compensated for by the reduction in stress you will experience by not multitasking.
Tip 5: Remove Clutter
If you want to avoid distractions it pays to make your workspace a less distracting environment.
Stripping things back and implementing a minimalist approach to your workstation, desk or office makes a lot of sense.
Our minds are hard-wired to notice changes in our environment.
Our scanners are always on, and it’s easy for your attention to be drawn to the pile of papers tumbling across your desk.
You are almost certain to notice a memo from your boss in and among the papers, and when you see it you’ll want to read it.
Keep what you’re working on in front of you, and put everything things else away and out of sight.
Tip 6: Block Time On Your Calendar
If you're struggling to allocate time to complete tasks in the way you want, it could be a sign that your diary management is out of control.
A simple calendar hack is to make an appointment with yourself.
That way, no-one is going to be able to muscle into the time you’ve selected to concentrate on an important task.
You don’t need to call it ‘meeting with myself’ by the way. That’s quite likely to not be taken seriously. Instead, call it something important sounding like ‘meeting to create a plan for the next quarter.’
In other words make the calendar reflect the work you’re doing, not just the people you're meeting.
Another calendar hack is to change the default time slot for meeting from one hour to something shorter.
Then you’ll free up some more time in your day for the important stuff.
Tip 7: Complete What You Start
When you settle down to do a piece of work, stay with until it’s finished.
While this might sound self-evident, if you’re honest you probably don’t do this consistently.
Use the Pomodoro technique to break down bigger jobs into smaller chunks and resist the temptation to do something more interesting until you’re finished.
Tip 8: Eliminate Interruptions
Close the door to signal that you’re busy and don’t want to be interrupted.
Take the phone off the hook and switch your mobile off.
If you can’t bring yourself to cut yourself off entirely, at least turn off the notifications.
As Time Management Ninja notes, interruptions are multitasking in disguise.
Tip 9: Use Contexts For To-Do Lists
Here’s a really interesting hack.
David's original idea about Contexts was to do with whether things like your computer, office, pen or internet were available.
This no longer makes sense because these are now always present.
What most people now do, including me, is to use contexts to denote a frame of mind or type of activity.
So I have a context called ‘home’ and another called ‘work.’
Additionally, I have tasks which have contexts for ‘thinking’ or ‘creativity’. I use OmniFocus as my todo manager which is really good with contexts like these.
Now when I’m ready to get to work, I can simply call up tasks which relate to a particular mindset.
This makes it far less likely that I’ll see ‘remember to buy a new printer cartridge’ when I’m working on something creative.
Tip 10: Reduce The Number Of Inboxes You Have
Having too many inboxes is a sure way to encourage distractions.
I aim to have a single physical inbox in my office into which every new item that might need my attention is placed.
I can then be sure to review my inbox once or twice a day, knowing that I’m sure not to miss anything new.
The same applies to digital inboxes. I organise these so that as far as possible everything that might need my attention is triaged immediately into a single inbox.
I have a workflow that supports this which involves Feedly and Instapaper for reading articles, DevonThink Pro Office and iCloud for information storage and document filing respectively and a dedicated workflow for email handling.
Tip 11: Instant Capture Tool
To avoid following up on something interesting that captures your attention it is sensible to have a workflow for instantly capturing such items.
I’ve built workflows using Workflow app for the iPhone that allows me to process large amounts of information quickly.
I use Drafts (app) on my iPhone to push any text information wherever I need it.
Finally, I make use of OmniFocus’s ability to parse emails into tasks which means I can quickly fire things into my trusted task manager for processing at a later date.
You have to be able to trust these systems in order to forget about the information you’re disposing of.
If you can build a workflow that does this you’ll find you’re much less likely to be distracted.
Tip 12: Just Say No
Finally, if you want to avoid distractions you need to master the use of the word 'no'.
By turning away from distractions you increase your ability to focus on what matters most.
Summing Up — The Ten Big Problems of Multitasking (And How To Avoid Them)
Multitasking is a modern day myth. There is a ton of science which confirms how unwise it is to attempt to multitask.
Adopt some of the strategies outlined in this post and you will gain all the benefits which I’ve outlined.
As a reminder, if you can get better at avoiding multitasking:
- You will be more productive.
- You will work faster and make fewer mistakes.
- You will be safer.
- You will have better memory retention.
- You’ll age less quickly.
- You’ll be more creative.
- Feel less stressed.
- Get more out of all of life’s experiences.
Do you have problems juggling too many priorities?