The Myth of Multitasking ... and better ways to get things done

There is a reason why no productivity app ever suggests multitasking as a way to increase productivity. Our brains are not designed to multitask, even though our minds seem to frequently make the attempt. As a result, multitasking comes with costs, which are largely hidden from us, that makes it a less than productive way to go through life.

Multitasking can be broadly thought of as the attempt to do two or more goal orientated tasks concurrently.

Like, writing a research report for one project and a workshop outline for another, more or less at the same time. Or trying to deal with two or three unfolding problems at once. Or sitting in a meeting and responding to emails. Or researching an article and replying to Whatsapp messages (note to self, stop doing this!).

Multitasking is not only work-related. We multitask all the time, and it is not without its down sides.

We talk to people on the phone and drive, making us more likely to have an accident or speed. We watch TV and scroll through social media, which not only potentially impacts on our working and long memory, impulse control, and ability to pay attention at other times, it certainly means we aren’t taking in one or both of what we are “watching”. Or we think about what we need to do to be ready for Christmas whilst reading a book, which means we have to go back and re-read the page.

Multitasking is largely a misnomer. A better word might be task-switching. When we try and employ the same cognitive resources on different tasks at the same time, what we are really doing is actively switching our attention and other executive control resources between competing goals and priorities. This puts additional demands on our cognitive networks, making us slower, and potentially leaving us feeling more frustrated, anxious, and exhausted.

Why is this?

In order to engage in conscious, goal-directed behaviour we employ a variety of different, but interacting, cognitive networks in our brains. Networks like the dorsal attention network, which is thought to direct attention in a top-down, or goal-directed way, and our frontoparietal control network which deals with high level cognitive tasks (like goal selection, problem solving and decision making).

The main problem seems to be that these cognitive resources are finite. They are limited in their capacity, and bouncing between different tasks and demands on our time places greater demands on our brain than staying focused on one thing for a while. Switching focus mid-task means the brain has to activate a new goal (goal shifting), and then activate a new set of rules that select / deselect a different set of information or responses appropriate to the new task and refocus the attention networks. All of this creates bottlenecks in our processing capabilities, and saps our limited resources, making us slower and more prone to making mistakes.

The intrusion of social media and the plethora of communication platforms designed to capture our attention means that even when we aren’t trying to do two things at once, we are often pulled into it by the ding of a text/Slack/email/WhatApp/etc arriving. This is thanks to our ventral attention network, which has evolved to keep us safe from external danger but has been successfully hijacked by technology companies to capture our attention when it should perhaps be otherwise deployed. This causes us to momentarily abandon what we were doing, lose focus and switch our attention and cognitive processing power to something else, before (hopefully) returning to the task at hand. Not only do we lose time and focus on the task at hand, we lose out in the switching back and forth itself.

So, what can we do about it?

In the world in which we now live, with its busy pace and constant electronic distractions, it is hard to counteract our tendency to multitask – both at work and in life. But, even when your to-do list is long and overwhelming (and perhaps especially so), it pays to work with your brain rather than against it, in getting things done and looking after your mental wellbeing.

Some ideas you might try include planning, prioritising, blocking, and (especially) limiting distractions.

Make a physical to-do list

Having a physical, written down to-do list helps you keep track of what needs to get done, and stops you feeling like you need to hold onto tasks mentally (which takes cognitive energy). Much like a worry board or a parking lot in a workshop, a written down to-do list may stop your mind from bouncing around between tasks in an effort to remember them, and free up some of the demands on your attention network.

Plan out your tasks, according to the time you have

Planning how and when you will get through your to-do list not only gives you a sense of control, but it also helps you work out what to focus on and when, in line with your goals and your available time. Without planning, you may well end up with an endlessly lengthening list of things to do that soon becomes overwhelming.

Planning involves prioritising your to-do list, chunking core goals into smaller but achievable tasks, and allocating time to do them in. Ironically taking time to plan out your month (roughly), your week (more specifically) and your day (very specifically) may free you up to get through more than just winging it.

It’s obviously important to ensure it is at least feasibly possible to achieve the tasks you set yourself for the day, week, or month, but anecdotally, I’m not sure people do this. There is no point in planning in 12 hours of work when you only have 4 hours of meeting-free time or agreeing to take on more tasks when your diary is already full.

Building time into your diary for planning, dealing with unexpected requests (they always come up), checking emails and downtime means you have less need to do them when you should be working on a particular task, making that time more productive.

Blocking & Focusing

Planning allows you to block out time to work on specific tasks, focusing on one task at a time. But to make this work, you have to commit to focusing on just that task for the time you’ve set or until the task objective is complete.

For cognitively difficult tasks (deep thinking, studying, writing, data analysis and so on) I quite like the Pomodoro Technique, where you work in four blocks of 25 minutes, with a 5-, 10- and 5-minute break between each block – giving you a two-hour window of focused time. The breaks give you something to keep you going when your brain wants to check social media or get a cup of tea (“I’ve still got three minutes”) and opportunities for a reset or reward along the way.

Limiting Distractions

Key to not multitasking, and staying focused, is limiting your distractions. This one is hard to do, but probably the most important step to avoid falling into the multi-tasking trap.

Distractions are anything that pulls your attention away from the task at hand. Beeps and buzzes from your devices, for example. To be productive you should be turning off all your notifications, including your mobile phone and anything else that buzzes whilst you are in a focused block of thinking time (and also when you are driving).

Making it happen

In writing this, I became super aware at just how many distractions I have enabled at my desk alone. My email, messenger, Slack and Whatsapp notifications are all open on my computer, my phone, and my watch. In the midst of trying to work on this piece, I was constantly pulled into different directions by compulsively checking what email had just arrived, or what was being said on Slack or WhatsApp about other projects I’m currently working on. And it was also interesting to observe just how frazzled I ended up feeling, and how clearly it limited my ability to get into the flow.

And yet, I’ve still not switched them off, and, weirdly, feel somewhat reluctant to do so. I’m not sure whether this is because I am in the habit of instant response, a fear of missing out, or pure laziness at trying to work out how to make that all happen in a way that suits me. It is probably a combination of all three. Of course, technology and social media is designed to play on our reward systems, so it’s no wonder we find it hard to withdraw from them, even temporarily.

It drives home another point. It’s hard to change ingrained habits, even when you are aware of their pitfalls.

It is almost certainly better for our brains and minds to not have notifications enabled at all. Even when we are not working – driving, socialising, watching TV, shopping, walking on the beach, reading a book - they cause distractions that clutter our minds, pull us out of the moment we are in, and potentially impact on our ability to connect with others and our happiness.

So, in an effort to commit to a new habit by sharing it (to help with accountability), I’m going to investigate what notifications I can turn off whilst making sure the important ones (family, only!) still reach me, commit to closing down unnecessary apps on my laptop and turning on focus on my phone when I’m working on a particular thing (or driving).

Have you got any other hints or tips to being more productive and less frazzled? Feel free to let me know!

Sharlene Zeederberg

24 Nov 2022