In a previous post about The Magic of doing only one thing at a time, I briefly mentioned some thoughts on multitasking. Now it is time to revisit the subject and dedicate more energy on the subject.
In the trainings I give around productivity and focus I always take time out to dispel the myth of multitasking. I usually do this through a series of exercises that show exactly how poorly we multitask.
Surprisingly enough, multitasking is still considered a virtue and I am sure some of you have boasted your multitasking abilities on a CV, aptitude test or job application. Perhaps equally surprising, many recruiters still see multitasking as a necessary skill when hiring new talent.
The truth, backed by an overwhelming amount of research, is that multitasking is a complete myth. If you think about attention as a searchlight illuminating whatever part of consciousness that you shine it on, you clearly see that we can only focus our attention on one thing/task at a time. What we normally refer to as multitasking is actually switch-tasking, a process of constantly switching attention and focus from one task to another.
Perhaps the most cited study on the subject comes from a group of researchers at Stanford University in 2009. Their research showed that people who multitask regularly are actually worse at it than those who do not. They have become chronically distracted and have a much harder time focusing, memorizing and organizing information. As a result they were more prone to mistakes/errors and less likely to remember details.
It takes a lot of energy to constantly re-focus your attention and you often end up spending more time than if you would have focused on one task first, then the other.
Different tasks also require different mindsets, so you will find more flow from first writing all your emails, and then pay all your bills instead of trying to mix them both.
So while it’s very clear that multitasking actually hurts our productivity, now we are also taking the habit of constant distraction into our private lives. I text while biking, eat while working and update Instagram while socializing with friends. As a result I am less present at any given moment and experience less enjoyment and quality of life. I also remember less details of these moments, because my attention is always divided. Essentially we can retrieve from memory only the things we put in there. If we aren’t paying attention, less information about any given moment will be stored in your long term memory and less information can be retrieved in the form of a memory. This explains why I, and several of my peers, have been experiencing a “failing memory”.
I simply cannot remember where I put my keys if I don’t pay attention when I leave them somewhere.
So have we damaged our brains beyond repair with our constant task switching and habits of distraction? I don’t believe we have. Our brains have shown great potential for plasticity, and even though we have spent years training our brain to be distracted, I certainly believe that it is possible to reverse this process. There are several things we can do to sharpen our focus and attention. Let me briefly go over some of these now.
Perhaps one of the simplest and most beneficial exercises you can do for increasing your focus is meditation. Focus on something very simple, basic and accessible. Your breath, surrounding soundscape or bodily sensations are good places to start. Distracting thoughts will come, and it’s ok. Remember that it will take time to retrain your attention. Be patient and kind with yourself. When you realize that you were distracted, simply bring your attention back and start over. With regular practice you will notice quite quickly (usually mere weeks) that you can sustain your attention for longer and longer periods of time.
Another accessible way of retraining you focus is to read longer pieces of text. In our current paradigm we are used to reading tiny bits of information. Status updates, comments, excerpts, summaries, and blog posts have become norm. In many cases we have even switched out reading for small byte-sized pieces of online video. Try reading more books or in-depth articles. You will notice that, much like meditation, you might have a difficult time to focus on the text. You read a page, but by the end of it you have no idea what you just read and you have to do it again. This can be quite discouraging, but don’t give up! It doesn’t take very long to notice that you can stay focused on the text for longer and longer periods of time without getting distracted.
Maybe the most obvious way of being more focused is to eliminate as many distractions as possible. Consider putting you phone on silent or flight mode, turn off all notification or maybe even just turn it off?? It might seem like an impossible feat in todays society, but keep in mind the benefits you will have from honing your attention. When I give my full attention to something or someone I am not only more focused, but I experience a deeper sense of connection and enjoyment. Food tastes better when eating is treated as an activity itself. (Just try it!) Relationships, whether professional or personal, grow deeper when I give someone my undivided attention and my work is of much higher quality when I can focus than when I am distracted.
A concrete way of avoiding multitasking and constantly switching our attention back and forth during our work is to batch likeminded tasks together. Schedule all meetings on the same day, send all emails at once, pay all invoices at the same time. To avoid having to switch mindset between these unrelated tasks do all the tasks that require the same mindset at the same time, and then move on to the next focus area…or go for a walk. =)
An interesting piece of information to end this post with is that I have been trying to finish writing this piece for the last week, while simultaneously trying to finish 2 more posts and doing everything else life throws at me. It was only today when I finally removed all distractions that everything fell in place. I was tempted several times with tons of different distractions and each time I tried to avoid judgement, bring my attention back and just keep going. It works!