Multitasking Makes you Stupid: Single-Tasking is Smarter
You can’t move forward when you’re running in circles.
You can’t efficiently do two complex tasks at the same time.
We’re addicted to constant distraction and repeated interruption. You feel insecure if your phone stops buzzing, for example.
Multitasking protects many of us from our insecurities.
Three versions of multitasking:
- Perform two tasks simultaneously.
- Perform tasks in rapid succession.
- Switch between two tasks, multi-switching.
Five reasons we multi-switch:
- Job requirements. Think of an emergency medical technician.
- Disrespect. Colleagues and bosses don’t respect time.
- Slow progress. “Let’s do something else. This isn’t working.”
- Boredom. Sometimes switching improves attention.
- Distraction. We’re addicted to distraction. If you don’t think so, sit quietly and calmly for 15 minutes.
Rapidly switching between tasks can cost as much as 40% of someone’s productivity time**. You also add switching-fatigue.
You expend energy doing tasks, but switching tasks also requires energy.
Multitasking makes you stupid:
Multitasking makes you stupid.
Some are better at multitasking than others, but some multitasking men had their IQ drop to the IQ of an 8-year-old*.
Single-tasking is smarter:
#1. Create time-chunks:
Suppose your average ability to focus is 20 minutes. Create several 20-minute chunks of time on your schedule to complete important tasks or reach milestones on large tasks.
Put your phone in the drawer for 20 minutes.
#2. Turn stuff off:
Open email. Use it. Turn it off.
Open the browser. Use it. Close it.
#3. Refresh frequently:
- Close your eyes and breathe.
- Walk around the block.
- Get water instead of keeping it at your desk.
#4. Be present when you show up:
Noticing is being present.
You might notice what you see. Or you might set out to notice something specific like the energy level of your team members.
How might leaders move toward single-tasking?
*To Multitask or Not to Multitask | USC Online
**Multitasking: Switching costs (apa.org)
Multitasking, Productivity, and Brain Health (verywellmind.com)
For years I tried to teach my teams that what is generally called “multi-tasking” is really “multi-switching.” This practice does consume a lot of productivity time and effort, and in some jobs can be a safety issue as well.
During my years supervising law enforcement officers on patrol, we became increasingly concerned with the ability of the officer to give sufficient attention to the task of safe driving, while also observing for crime and other matters requiring police intervention. Then additional distracting tasks like operating radar equipment, cell phones, data terminals and even multiple radios were thrown into the mix. Add in the need for vigilance for overt threats to officer safety and you have a very busy officer, even when he or she might seem to be doing very little. Prioritizing tasks and taking obvious precautions (e.g. stopping in a safe location before using the phone or data terminal, or stopping in a high-crime area to observe street activity without the distraction of driving tasks) are essential.
And yes, it’s a problem in the office as well!
Your insights and experience are helpful. Thank you, Jim. The challenge I see in myself is, I make little exceptions. It’s just a short text. It’s just a short call. But small exceptions can be dangerous.
The “little exceptions” is so accurate. This also requires regular vigilance. I sometimes find myself telling the story that I believe in single-tasking, only to realize later where I’ve allowed little exceptions to creep in, and my focus is more scattered than I’d like to admit.
“Multitasking makes you stupid.” Maybe, but it also makes you look busy. And the appearance of industry (and other things too) is more important than what you are doing!
Thanks Mitch. You remind me of an old Seinfeld episode. George learned that if you look frustrated, people assume you’re busy.
I’ve gotten most successful at managing my emails in chunks. I have found that reading emails on the fly on my phone makes me have to mark them as unread so I could respond later on my computer and it was doubling the time I spent on emails. Now, I start my day with 30-40 minutes of emails and end the day with emails. I aim to get the Gmail “Woohoo! You’ve read all the messages in your inbox” (ok, I admit, this one is a bit addictive) in order to make the next day manageable.
I am less successful in focusing on other things one at a time and I’m encouraged by your 20 minute recommendation. Hey, I can do 20 minutes of uninterrupted concentration, can’t I?
Wow! What great insight and what a simple tip. DON’T mark emails unread! Deal with them once. I do my email at the top of the hour, typically.
Good luck with a 20 minute chunk. 🙂 I’m a squirrel on steroids. 20 seconds is a long time.
Here’s something I’m trying. I give myself distraction-time. After I finish something. I give myself permission to watch a youtube video or bop around on the Internet for a few minutes. But I have to close the browser when I’m done!
Reading this while starting a meeting… oh the irony…
introspectively I’ve found an element of self-importance in all of this. “I’m too important or needed to give you ALL of my attention.”
Thank you for this great insight.
Thanks Greg. Ego is an interesting part of who we are. Too much and we look down on people. It’s not popular, but I use the term arrogance because I find it difficult to say.
Your self-awareness and candor are refreshing. I wish you well.
Have a great meeting.