Multitasking is a Myth



Hey guys! Today I want to talk about something all of us do and many think we’re good at—multitasking. The reason I want to discuss it is because I’m doing an in-person training at the Chamber next Wedesnday at noon on how to literally create time. One of the aspects of the training touches upon the fact that multitasking is a myth according to science.

But I’m not going to have enough time to go in-depth on this very important topic so let’s do so here. 

First, listen to this true story written about in Harvard Health on the dangers of multitasking:
In a case report for the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Dr. John Halamka, the chief information officer at Harvard Medical School, described the so-called mishap, which happened to a 56-year-old man with dementia who was admitted to the hospital to have a feeding tube placed in his stomach.

One of the man’s doctors increased the dose of the blood-thinner warfarin the man was taking. Warfarin helps prevent clots from forming in the bloodstream. The next day, the doctor decided to evaluate whether the man needed warfarin at all, and asked a resident (junior doctor) to temporarily stop the order for daily warfarin.

Using her cellphone, the resident began to make the change via a computerized order entry system. Part way through, she received a text message from a friend about a party. She responded to the text, but forgot to go back and complete the medication order canceling warfarin. As a result, the man kept getting a high dose of warfarin. His blood became so “thin” that, two days later, blood was spontaneously filling the sac around his heart, squeezing it so it couldn’t pump properly. He needed open-heart surgery to drain the blood and save his life.

You might think that, of course, medical personal should be extra careful. But by the end of this training, you’ll learn how destructive multitasking is to your life, especially your professional life.

Your Brain on Multitasking

I first want to say that I used to take pride in the fact that I could multitask. But I learned two years ago that’s there’s no such thing as multitasking for the brain. Now to clarify, you can do a load of laundry and read a book or surf the Internet. But when it comes to learning or cognitive tasks, which are activities that require us to be able to focus, concentrate, and think, our brains simply cannot do it. Instead we are actually RAPIDLY SWITCHING from one task to another and to another and so on. 

Researchers are finding that this constant switching back and forth between tasks is the NUMBER ONE CAUSE OF STRESS in the workplace and costs U.S. economy an estimated $650 BILLION a year in WASTED PRODUCTIVITY. It also leads to mental and physical fatigue because the constant switching requires the brain to use oxygenated glucose faster. And as a certified personal trainer, I also suspect it leads to carb cravings to get those brain sugars back up.

The term multitasking didn’t exist before 1965. It was originally coined for computers that could perform more than one task at a time. In spite of the fact some think our brains are like computers, they are not. They’re designed to focus on one thing at a time and absolutely love being in the ZONE. 

When you’re focused on a task and interrupted or distracted by a text or email, it takes about 23 minutes to return to the task in a focused and productive way.  Dr. Gloria Mark,associate professor at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, “found that average information workers are interrupted every three minutes or nearly twenty times per hour!” 

Now most of those interruptions are miniscule and don’t impact you as much. Four is the average number of significant interruptions that decrease productivity. If it takes 23 minutes to recover, an hour-long task now takes two hours. And studies have also found that 40% of the time people don’t return right to the task but use it as an opportunity to get a couple more smaller tasks done real quick. 

Dumb and Dumber

Let me share with you the costs of multitasking (and believe me they will surprise you):

  1. Constant switching encourages bad habits. When you complete a tiny task like sending an email, responding to a text, or posting on FB, your brain gets a dollop of dopamine, the reward hormone. Our brains LOVE dopamine so it then drives us to keep switching to those little tasks to get more. And on top of that, we THINK we’re getting a lot done, but we’re not. In fact, research is showing that just picking up the phone releases dopamine in anticipation and is quite addictive leading to the need to self-interrupt. I.e. now you’re not just being interrupted by others but doing it yourself.
  2. Shortens attention span. Before the proliferation of cell phones, email etc., our attention span was 12 minutes for learning. Now it’s 3-5 minutes. General attention span that doesn’t require learning a new thing is now 5 seconds, less than a goldfish. 
  3. Increases cortisol, the stress hormone leading to mental fatigue, irritability, feeling overwhelmed, etc. 
  4. Makes it difficult to organize thoughts and filter out irrelevant information. Now that’s huge. To be productive and successful, you must be able to filter out the irrelevant. Constant switching, instead, clutters your brain making it hard for you to know what’s relevant and what to focus on. Like where to start on a project or what to do first.
  5. Reduces quality and efficiency of work. Productivity drops 40%. Error rates increase 20%. Spelling errors. Answering questions with wrong information. Overlooking things. And many more things fall through the cracks because our brains simple can’t remember it all especially if we’re suffering from unorganized thoughts from habitually interrupting ourselves with emails, texts, and social media. 
  6. Lowers IQ by up to 10 points in women and 15 points in men. In fact, studies revealed that the IQ difference was so significant in men that they became the age equivalent of an eight-year-old! This IQ lowering happens when you stay up all night or smoke marijuana! 

Do These Two Things

I want to give you two things to start now.

  1. Block at least 25 minutes to two hours to focus on singular task. It takes 25 minutes to get into the zone, which is, again, why it’s so important to minimize interruptions because remember it takes 23 minutes to get back into the zone. 
  2. Create an email-checking schedule and turn off notifications. That little ding causes a dopamine dollop too. Check your email in the morning, at lunch, and before leaving work. Here’s one final fact on the email issue. McKinsey Global Institute learned that employees spend 28% of work week checking emails! That’s 11 hours of a 40-hour week.

And, finally, recognize you might be addicted to your phone and self-interrupting. There are plenty of apps you can use to not only track your phone and social media use but also literally lock you out of your phone when you tell it to so you can focus. 

Now I have found that those most addicted immediately think there’s no way they could do time blocks, only check email 3 times a day, or lock their phones because they might miss an important call, email, etc. That right there reveals a problem. If you can’t time block 25 minutes to do a task well, you just might be addicted or placing equal significance on all tasks. 

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Sherri Wilson