98% of Us Are Doing This Wrong

Suzie Glassman

How doing less of it will make you more productive

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Raise your hand if you’re guilty of the following:

  • Scrolling your phone while watching TV
  • Reading articles while on a Zoom call
  • Typing email while on the phone
  • Talking on the phone while driving
  • Editing while answering questions from my kids
  • Cooking while cleaning, texting, folding laundry, etc.

What are we doing wrong? Multitasking.

Multitasking isn’t just something we do. It’s who we are. We pride ourselves on getting a lot done — all at the same time. Why do one thing, when we can do many?

The problem is we think we are good at it. We’re deluding ourselves.

Fascinating research described in David Levitin’s book, The Organized Mind, changed the way I think about multitasking. Here’s how.

The Brain on Multitasking

It turns out our brains aren’t wired to perform multiple tasks at once. We may feel more productive checking several items off a to-do list at once, but science says we’re the opposite.

Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT and one of the world’s experts on divided attention, notes there’s a cognitive loss each time we switch back and forth from one thing to another.

He says we think we’re keeping a lot of balls in the air like an expert juggler when we’re amateur plate spinners frantically keeping plates spinning, afraid one will come crashing down at any moment.

The danger is we think we’re getting more done when we’re far less productive.

Levitin highlights a study reported in the Journal Of Experimental Psychology showing students took far longer to solve complicated math problems when they had to switch to other tasks; in fact, they were up to 40 percent slower.

Studies by Gloria Mark, an ‘interruption scientist’ at the University of California, show that when people are frequently diverted from one task to another, they work faster, but produce less.

After 20 minutes of interrupted performance, people report significantly higher stress levels, frustration, workload, effort, and pressure. Male or female, it doesn’t matter.

This fact explains why I get nothing done when my kids are doing school from home. I want to rip my eyes out after the 30th interruption.

Working from home may save companies money and protect our health, but I’m not convinced it’s leading to increased productivity.

Multitasking Makes Us Less Intelligent

Professor Miler scanned volunteers’ heads while they performed different tasks and found that when there is a group of visual stimulants in front of you, only one or two things tend to activate your brain, indicating we’re really only focusing on one or two items.

If we’re only fully present for one (maybe two) things at a time, anything else we’re working on isn’t getting done well.

I’ve typed emails while talking on the phone only to find out later (to my horror), my message was filled with typos.

To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex part of our brain has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can easily be hijacked by something new — aka shiny object syndrome.

Unfortunately for us, this is also the part of the brain responsible for keeping us on task.

We answer the phone, look up something on the Internet, check our e-mail, send an SMS, and each of these things tweaks the novelty-seeking, reward-seeking centers of the brain, causing a burst of endogenous opioids (no wonder it feels so good!), all to the detriment of our staying on task.

Glenn Wilson of Gresham College, London, refers to the scenario above as infomania. His research found that being in a situation where you’re trying to concentrate on a task, and an email is sitting unread in your inbox can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points.

Wilson showed that the cognitive losses from multitasking are even more significant than the cognitive losses from pot-smoking, which is known to interfere with memory and our ability to concentrate.

If you need more convincing, Levitin highlights research by Russ Poldrack, a neuroscientist at Stanford.

He found that learning information while multitasking causes the new information to go to the wrong part of the brain. If students study and watch TV at the same time, for example, the information from their schoolwork goes into the striatum, a region specialized for storing new procedures and skills, not facts and ideas.
Without the distraction of TV, the information goes into the hippocampus, where it is organized and categorized in a variety of ways, making it easier to retrieve it. MIT’s Earl Miller adds, People can’t do [multitasking] very well, and when they say they can, they’re deluding themselves. And it turns out the brain is very good at this deluding business.

Also, the rapid shifting our brain does when switching tasks depletes it of energy, leaving us feeling exhausted and causes us to produce cortisol, the stress hormone.

It’s a negative feedback loop. Do too much at once, and you’ll feel stressed and unproductive. Feeling this way leads to thinking you need to do more, so you continue trying to multitask.

By contrast, staying focused on one task at a time is controlled by a different region in our brain, which uses less energy and produces no cortisol response.

If you Must, Here’s How

The best idea is monotasking. Focusing on one task at a time to completion. We all know that sounds great in theory, but we’re busy people with not enough hours in the day.

If you have to do more than one task at a time, experts recommend:

  1. Don’t multitask in the afternoon. We’re tired, and the post-lunch slump can cause too much strain, leaving us feeling stressed and overwhelmed.
  2. Meditate. Brain scans of non-Westerners who’ve practiced meditation extensively show they have better memory and attention skills.
  3. Practice with simple tasks. You can build up your brain’s ability to do more than one thing at a time. Just start slow and ridiculously simple.

To get better at monotasking, try the following:

  1. Have a To-Do List. Yep. This is the most obvious recommendation ever. Yet, many people still don’t do this easy task. Organizational experts repeatedly say writing down what you need to accomplish allows you to prioritize your tasks. Work on each one to completion.
  2. Build your environment to lessen distractions. Leave your phone in another room. Turn off notifications on your email. Close all tabs except the one you’re working on. Even just turning sound off on your phone can stop you from getting distracted by the constant dinging of various apps. I had to set up my email so it stops notifying when a new one is in my inbox.
  3. Schedule time blocks. Figure out which hours in the day you’ll respond to email, write, return phone calls, check social media, etc. You may switch between tasks, but you’re staying within the same categories. Time blocks help your brain stay focused because the tasks at hand are all similar.
  4. Delegate. If there are tasks someone else can accomplish, get them off your plate. Let someone else do the cooking, get the family to do laundry, hire a virtual assistant to do remedial tasks. Having less on your plate makes it far less tempting to try doing multiple things at once.

Final Thoughts

I’m not talking about multitasking that allows us to cook a meal (think boiling water while prepping ingredients). Or that helps us get ready faster in the morning (brushing teeth while making the bed).

Some things are so automatic they don’t need our undivided attention.

However, these days we think nothing about watching television while having a conversation and mulling over what we need to do tomorrow. My point is our boss, clients, spouses, and kids deserve more.

It’s also stressing us out and leaving us mentally drained.

There is a cost to the way that our society is changing. Humans are not built to work this way, Professor Poldrack says. We’re really built to focus.

From now on, I’m going to do my best to stay on one task a time. I’m sure I’ll fail frequently, but the goal is to fail forward — improving each time. Let me know if you do the same!

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I write about health and fitness with the goal to help you live a healthier, happier life.

Denver, CO

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