Why Multitasking is Blocking Your Path to Success
Be honest, how many times have you needed to rewrite the email you tapped out while talking on the phone or re-read the message you saw while walking down a busy street?
When you’re stretched to your limits or struggling with lack of resources, it’s hard not to jump from task-to-task. But bouncing back and forth between things isn’t going to make life easier because what you’re really doing is task switching, not multi-tasking.
Playing task ping-pong means your brain must re-orient itself each time you switch tasks because it needs to let go of the cognitive rules it applied to the first job and apply a whole new set of rules needed for the next thing you work on.
It may take milliseconds and feel seamless but it chews up your mental firepower. According to MIT Professor of Neuroscience, Earl Miller, “your brain needs to expend mental energy refocusing on the task, backtracking and fixing errors.”
Researchers from one study sent someone dressed in a clown suit riding a unicycle down a busy street and found those on their phones were less likely to notice or remember the clown. So, if we can’t walk and talk without losing some level of cognitive performance, what happens when we’re juggling critical business decisions and analysing complex data?
Everything Takes Longer
Molecular biologist and author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School, John Medina, believes it takes 50 per cent longer to complete something when switching tasks.
The estimated global cost of multitasking was $450 billion per year from lost productivity, meaning entrepreneurs lose a huge about of time spend fixing errors that could’ve been spent chasing new business and bringing in more sales.
It may seem unnoticeable in isolation but repeated switching adds up. Studies estimate even brief mental blocks can cost up to 40 per cent of someone's productive time. A survey of Microsoft workers found it took an average of 15 minutes to return to complex tasks after responding to incoming e-mail and instant messages, and a University of Utah study found drivers took longer to reach their destination when they spoke on their phones as they drove.
You’ll Make More Mistakes
A study by Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale found participants made three times more mistakes and repeatedly forgot one of the three tasks they needed to do when working on things simultaneously. Brain Rules author Medina found the rate of failure was even higher with multitaskers making up to 50 per cent more errors.
Think about it: your brain is being pulled in two directions. As Gary Keller notes in One Big Thing, “Every time we try to do two or more things at once, we’re simply dividing our focus and dumbing down all of the outcomes in the process.”
Your IQ Lowers and Attention Span Shortens
University of Sussex researchers found MRI scans of people spending extended periods on multiple devices (e.g. texting while watching TV) showed lower grey-matter density, effectively meaning they had less cognitive control and were more likely to suffer from a poor attention span.
Psychologists traditionally believed that cognitive impairment from multitasking was temporary but studies suggest the effect could be longer lasting. Generally, those who multitasked experienced an IQ decline similar to those who have stayed up all night, with some male participants experiencing an IQ drop of 15 points, leaving them with an IQ similar to an eight-year-old child.
So, the next time you’re trying to participate in a meeting while reading the news headlines, test yourself on how much information you’ve retained from either afterwards.
Stress Levels Rise
University of California Irvine researchers found the heart rates of employees with constant access to their email were perpetually elevated, while those with limited access were less stressed.
Our primal urge to take on as much as we can as quickly as possible makes tackling our multitasking instinct difficult, but there are things we can do to help us work more efficiently rather than bouncing side to side every other minute.
Dedicate 15 Minutes to Catching Up with Today’s Headlines
Most of us keep our news browser on all day and switch every 15-20 minutes. Just read it once in the morning without guilt, and don’t touch it again until a set time in the afternoon, say 4pm. You’ll be less distracted as you work.
Check Emails at Set Times
Dedicate time in the morning solely to answering and reading emails, and then don’t touch them again until a set time in the afternoon. The University of California Irvine study that cut employees from constant emails worked more efficiently because they focused on one task for longer and switched screens less often.
It may feel odd to be off your emails during business hours, but once you set the expectation that you only check your emails at, say, 9am and 3pm, then they’ll be trained not to expect a response outside these hours.
Prioritize According to When You Work Best
Be selective about what you make a priority and choose something that will make the biggest inroad towards your goals. And if you do your best thinking in the morning, then make yourself unreachable until noon, and then attend to your queries in the afternoon. Schedule complex work for when you’re at your peak.
And remember to take a break because you’ll be more productive when you’re mentally rested.
Switch When Your Attention Wanes
Associate Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Kansas Paul Atchley advises changing to something new when your attention starts to waiver but take a moment to note where you were up to on the first task. Then give the new task your full attention for as long as you can.
Sometimes, slow and steady really does win the race. The next time you’re overwhelmed and have the compulsion to juggle your work, stop and take a breath. Give your full attention to one project for a set time, and you’ll find the quality of your work and the efficiency in which you complete it will improve immensely. And who doesn’t want that?