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The Myth of Multitasking: Stop, Focus, Get More Done

We're so proud of being able to multi-task!

In fact, we're so used to 'multi-tasking', we don't even notice anymore that's what we're doing.

Working on one thing, checking on another, music in the background, dashing off a response to an email, seeing what that Facebook ping was all about….. On and on, mind jumping from thing to thing.

'Look at me! Look at me!' I'm doing three things at once. I got all of them finished. I'm versatile, adaptable! I'm all kinds of brilliant!!'

Sorry. It's not true. 

It's a myth. It's delusion. You didn't multitask.

You did one thing, then another thing, then a third thing, then the first thing again, then a bit of the third thing, then you hopped back to the first thing before checking in on the first thing and then resuming work on the third…

Even reading that sentence is tiring. Imagine how exhausting it is actually to operate like that. Actually probably you don't need to imagine. This is how most of us live. This is the illusion of 'being efficient'.

Think of it like this: You're trying to cook something in the kitchen. You're trying to watch something on TV in the living room. You're trying to attend a Zoom meeting in the spare room. You're listening for the sound of your baby waking from her nap upstairs.

Each of those things takes attention. Moving between those things ALSO takes attention. A significant part of your energy is spent running from room to room, reminding yourself what you're meant to be doing as you restart each task….. 'How long has the veg been in the oven?', 'What agenda item has this meeting reached?', 'What's this film about?', 'Was that a noise from upstairs?'…

Multi-tasking means spending all the attention necessary to do each individual task AND finding extra energy continually to switch between tasks.

The Myth of Multitasking: Stop, Focus, Get More Done

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What is the 'Wasted' Energy Used by Switching Tasks?

In an article on The American Psychological Association Website, the authors write of two actions involved in switching from one task to another:

They call one stage "goal shifting" ("I want to do this now instead of that") and the other stage "rule activation" ("I'm turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this").

In other words you use attention to stop doing one thing and start the next, and then you use further attention to remind yourself what the rules, intentions or demands of the new task actually are.

This is why multi-tasking is a myth. We don't do several things at once. We do many things sequentially. Do something, then stop doing it, move to something else, remember what we are trying to achieve, start doing it, stop doing it, move on, remember what the new task is all about, do a bit of it...

It is a phenomenal waste of energy!

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How Much Energy?

According to The American Psychological Association:

Although switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error. Meyer has said that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone's productive time.

Why do we waste so much time distracting ourselves by jumping from one thing to another, rather than completing one task before starting the next? Why do we generally prefer continual distraction? Why do many of us run a mile from actually focusing and sticking with one thing for extended periods?

Psychologist Nate Kemp PhD writes:

Psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that the human mind is actually wired for this state of continuous distraction.

He draws two conclusions.

The first is this:

distraction is primarily a mind game. If we really want to get focused, if we really want to more skillfully manage the distractions of digital life, the path has to include developing a new habit of more effectively managing our most precious resource: our attention.

The second is this:

We should focus less on what we're doing and more on how we are being.

This is important. 'Tricks' to 'make you present' are - at best - short term solutions. At worst, they are fraud.

The only true solution to distraction is to change how your mind operates - to become someone who chooses to be present. It is about personal transformation.

Kemp's solution to distraction? 'Shift your attention to focus on the now'.

It doesn't take a genius to see how training performers in any performance style CLEARLY offers strategies to counteract distraction (and the unhappiness and exhaustion distraction causes). We train people to pay attention. We train people to respond to the present moment. We train people to avoid distraction. We train people to know themselves and discipline their minds - to change how they ARE in the world.

Some of what we do involves training people to be better performers - some may even go on to be professional performers. However we also work with people who will never be performers and probably have no interest in trying to be! Is our work a waste of time? Absolutely not! When we train people to be focused and present for extended periods of time, to put aside distraction and the illusion of multitasking, we train them to be more fully conscious, aware, mindful and happy. We train them to be more functional. We train them to be efficient too, though that, for me, is a secondary benefit, not a primary one.

My Take-Away from all this?

If you know how, you can train yourself and other people in the tools of focus and presence. You cannot however make someone be present. Disciplining the mind is something each one of us must do for ourselves.

So next time you fool yourself into thinking how brilliant you are for doing multiple things all at the same time, just pause and reflect. If only you had finished one thing before starting the next, you'd probably have finished them all sooner, done each task better and ended up less tired.

Ah well. Forgive yourself. You're human.

John Britton
Featured Uplyrn Expert
John Britton
Author, Educator, Business Mentor
Subjects of Expertise: Performance Pedagogy, Presence & Interconnection, Creativity
Featured Uplyrn Expert
John Britton
Author
Educator
Business Mentor

Subjects of Expertise

Performance Pedagogy
Presence & Interconnection
Creativity

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