Multi-tasking Is Killing Your Productivity

It seemed like a great fit for both sides. But deep into the second interview, she asked me the question, “how well do you do with multi-tasking?”  I believe it was my response and her ignorance on the matter that lost me the job offer.  I’ll get back to this.  For now, let’s look at this expert multi-tasker.

Multi-tasking is an ever-growing part of our culture.  Listening to music, watching TV, surfing the internet, working, eating, driving, playing games…*inhale*…chatting online, cooking, emailing, talking on the phone, reading, writing a paper, texting, writing a blog post, etc.  These are being combined in various and increasingly crazy combinations, as clearly seen in the video above.

Babies in the 21st century are born with cell phones. (unverified)

Multi-tasking Is Not That Bad…

…If you’re doing a maximum of two things at once.

recent French study found that when humans were given two tasks simultaneously, one task was handled by the right frontal lobe and the other by the left!  Amazing, right?  But once that number was increased to three tasks, one of the initial tasks “disappeared from the brain.”  Even worse, with three tasks, the participants slowed down and made many more mistakes.  Tackling three tasks at once is like running Windows Vista with 256 MB of RAM, except that we can’t add more frontal lobes.

Personally, I avoid multi-tasking whenever possible because deep focusing is superior.  In the same study, when there was only one task to accomplish, both sides of the brain worked together to accomplish the task.

I keep thinking about our frontal lobes as dual-core processors, but I’ve made too many computer-related analogies in the last two posts.

Multi-tasking does not come naturally…

  • Your fast lateral eye movement and peripheral vision give the impression that you can see many things at once, but your point of focus is always singular.
  • In conversation, we take turns talking rather than speaking and listening at the same time.
  • Nearly all sports use one ball.
  • What about those who juggle while riding a unicycle?  There it is!  Multi-tasking lives!  Not so fast.  The reason we’re amazed by this feat is because it is insanely difficult to do and takes serious time and practice to perfect.  I guarantee you that the performers who can do both at once can do each one much better individually.
Unicyclist juggling knives

I believe he is juggling knives on a unicycle. The face is justified.

Fun Fact: Jugglers use peripheral vision to juggle. They stare at a point in mid-air in front of them, focusing their vision on nothing and their mind on the peripheral environment (i.e. the objects they’re juggling).

We may feel productive multi-tasking, but anything more than two tasks is proven to be fertile soil for making mistakes and slowing down productivity.  Unlike the juggling unicycler, we cannot predict and train for the multi-tasking feats we attempt to conquer on a daily basis.

Multi-tasking is the enemy of Deep Existence.  It breeds shallow behavior by its very nature.  It is impossible to go deep into anything if you’re being interrupted by and engaging in other activities simultaneously.

Focus For Greater Impact

Imagine you’re holding a huge, dirty, and jagged rock.  You heave the rock with all your might into a lake in front of you with as high an arc as you can muster.  *kerrrrrrrplunk*  The rock impacts the water with deep sound and great force, triggering an explosion that forces the moist molecules into the air.  A massive current is pushed out from the spot of impact.

Rock splash impact

Now imagine you’re holding a smooth, oval stone.  You step forward and let it fly.

*tick*………………..*tick*……………..*tick*……..*tick*….*plink*

Only five?  Wow, that’s not very good.  The world record is 51 skips.

Stone SkippingThe stone skips along the water effortlessly.  At every location it touches, it gracefully lifts off and glides to the next destination.  Several tiny ripples can be seen gently flowing out from the touchdown locations as it makes its last skip and gently sinks down into the water.

That is the difference between deep focusing and shallow multi-tasking.  The heavy rock went underwater immediately with great impact, whereas the small stone skipped several times before it went under with little impact.  This 15 hour post might be less recognized than a trendy 5 minute news update on Justin Bieber’s new hair products, but it offers much greater value because of the time and focus I’ve put into it.

Focusing is not in style right now.  Do you ever hear your friends boast of their ability to focus on one thing? No, but people light up when someone recalls how they were shaving or putting on make-up while eating breakfast and studying for an exam on the drive to school.  Now we know that they’re just being inefficient (or dangerous in the case of driving).

About the interview… When she asked about my multi-tasking skills, I told her that I was adept at focusing and refocusing.  I wish I could have taken a picture of the interviewers’ reactions (I received two surprised, blank stares).  I told them I was skilled at exactly the opposite thing they were looking for.  Did it mean I couldn’t stop working to answer a phone call?  Absolutely not!  My futile attempts to explain fell on dogmatic multi-tasking-loving ears.

The Two Types of Productive Days

Multi-tasking, the sneaky miscreant, often steals the credit for productive days.  Think of your most productive days right now.  They likely fit one or both of these scenarios.

  1. You accomplish much on a single project – Your passion for the project fuels your efforts.  Deep focus on getting it finished allows you to work effectively.
  2. You accomplish many things – Taking out the trash, writing that report, getting groceries, calling the dentist to set up an appointment, having a great workout, doing laundry, and completely organizing your closet. What a productive day!  This is NOT multi-tasking. This kind of a day requires focus.  When you are focused, you get one task done and move to the next.  Time management experts know how to focus.

The Two Types Of Multi-tasking

  1. Distraction – you’re working on a project and you receive a phone call.  While on the phone and still working on that project, the mailman stops by to have you sign for a package.  Just like the study suggests, once the third task enters the picture, you’ll have to physically and mentally put aside one or both of the other two tasks.
  2. Purposeful – you listen to music while cleaning. You read a book and take notes. You brainstorm ideas for a business while you mow the lawn.  You remain focused because you’ve planned your multi-tasking session in a smart way that does not inhibit your productivity.

Purposeful double-tasking (two tasks at once) is fine and even beneficial.  Distraction-based multi-tasking is more common and the one that kills your productivity.  Unfortunately, the distraction often comes from within.  For example,

“I just remembered I need to call my Attorney but the office is closed.  Oh yeah, and I have to pick up cheese sometime soon.  I really need to get in better shape.”

You might have these internal distractions pop up as you’re working on a presentation.  They pull your focus away from the presentation and yet you’re probably not in a position where you can do anything about them.  You’re going to have to reprocess them again later.  This mental disorganization WILL happen unless the work is outsourced to something outside of the mind that you trust.

This work must be outsourced because our brains are literally incapable of storing as many things as we want them to store.  Let me prove that with sheer numbers…

I currently have 127 things that I need to keep in mind. Twenty of those are huge multiple-step projects that I’m currently undertaking or will soon.  In addition to those, I have 59 article ideas for Deep Existence. I know this because I have emptied my mind into a system that I can trust.  Now I can use my mind for things like enjoying life, thinking of creative ideas, and not worrying about forgetting anything.

Getting Things Done Tasks

You can see I have 127 to-dos (58 are actionable right now)

No mind on earth can effectively manage the average person’s mental workload.  This fact leads to inefficient use of our time, frustration from missing out on our dreams, and a constant (legitimate) feeling of being behind or forgetting something.  Our mind is not a great task management system when the number of tasks surpasses its capacity.

The Solution I Use

I was fortunate to stumble across this solution while in college a few years ago.  It is in the form of a book I’ve read (twice) that has changed my life.  The book is “Getting Things Done” by David Allen.  The picture above is my implementation of the system.

 

You cannot possibly remember the 200 things you want to, so stop trying.  Outsource that stressful grunt-work to an intuitive system and free your mind for greater things.  And remember to cut your multi-tasking to two tasks at most.

I hope you have a productive day.  🙂

Photo credit: Juggler by Ladonite | Rock splash by Zach Dischner | Rippled water by Canadian Starhawk

About the Author

I'm lazy, but you can call me Stephen. When you're as lazy as I am, you need superior strategies to live well. My strategies are so effective that I'm productive every single day. As the world tries to figure out how to always stay motivated, I create strategies that don't require it.

A. Irvin

Awesome, awesome, awesome post! Of course, I have a bias due to the fact that I’m more of a prioritizer – I suck at multi-tasking. I like that you added the neuro information. When I explain that to people, they always respond that it really isn’t true for them – LOL. I guess their brains function differently from the rest of us.

I enjoyed reading this – I can’t wait to see the other 59 (up 2 from a few days ago) you have in queue!

A. Irvin

And regarding the video . . . you’ve GOT to be kidding me!!

sguise

Multi-tasking is often defended fiercely by those who wield it. Probably because it is so ingrained (or not) in our lifestyles that people feel like their way of living is being threatened. From the research I conducted for this article, it’s fine as long as you limit it to two. It is still usually inferior to focusing on one thing, but our brains are capable of doing two things at once reasonably well.

I spent sooo much time on this post. I’ll have to see if the response justifies the time. If not, I may scale back to just 5-10 hours per post. I’m glad that you enjoyed it, Angela! Thanks for the feedback!

I bet the guy in that video would be a fierce defender of the multi-tasking way of life. Maybe he has extra frontal lobes. 😛

Gadgets For Blogger

I Guess multi tasking very hard for me, i just do one job such as a blogger, maybe you have another opinion?

Amy

This is a great post! I am a horrible multi-tasker (which is kind of unfortunate with two kids, but they’ve both made it this far…). I have friends who make fun of me because I just can’t multi-task, but in my opinion, I am a lot calmer and happier than they are. 🙂

sguise

Multi-tasking is hard for everyone because we’re not wired to do it. I’m not sure what you mean by your question. I wrote an article on careers if you need help deciding on one – http://stephenguise.com/2011/04/the-4-step-career-guide-plus-23-careers-youve-never-considered/

A. Irvin

@ Amy – I’m the same as you! I feel much less frazzled then many of my multi-tasking friends. I’m back in school now, so I am juggling a lot. I stick with managing my time properly, and dedicating time to each task because the multi-tasking approach yields substandard results (which is the point of Stephen’s article).

sguise

Being calm and happy is a great way to go about life! I think that not being able to multi-task very well can be a good sign. Even when you are multi-tasking, you must be able to focus on the tasks at hand in order to deal with them effectively. The experts in this field say that focus is key to productivity and that multi-tasking can be a detriment to that.

Bbvoncrumb

Great article. I’m in the process of creating content similar to this as through learning a language, I’ve come across countless effective and useless methods to multitask, keep productive or memorize. Keep it up!

sguise

Thank you! I will certainly keep it up. I hope you find the best methods!

Greg

Focus can’t be multitasked, you can only switch focus faster. Nice post. I want to say good job and congrats on using your single-tasking brain to get this blog up and running with great content! Keep it up!

sguise

Haha, I like that term – I’m a single-tasker! Thank you Greg!

Chris Kahler @ Bloggeritus

Multi tasking kills the concept of “massive action” and makes the concept of “sporadic inaction” take place instead. You can’t get anything accomplished if you spread yourself too thin, but if you apply instant action and focus towards a productivity list of things to do, every action builds upon itself until you’ve massively accomplished a lot.

Great post! Right up my alley in what I like to read 🙂

sguise

I really like the term you used – sporadic inaction. I think that’s very accurate! Glad you enjoyed it Chris!

Jehangir

I have read “Getting Things Done”. Its a great book especially the terms author used in that book.

sguise

It definitely is a great book! Are you implementing the system?

Srinivas Rao

Hey Stephen

Great explanation of the how multi-tasking kills productivity. What’s funny is that when you don’t do it, you get insane amounts of stuff done in really short amounts of time. For with ADHD it’s a constant battle to maintain focus. The simplest thing I did that has made a massive difference is learning to shut off my inbox for a few hours each day. When I do that I get boatloads of things done. I think 2X a day is about all that’s required.

sguise

Your idea to shut off your inbox for a few hours each day sounds great. I’ll keep that idea in mind as I begin to get more emails and notifications. Thanks for stopping by, Srini. Oh, and I have a guest post coming up on Problogger May 28th and I linked to my guest post on Skool Of Life. So that will help both of us! 😀

Natalie

This is an excellent blog post! I recently read GTD and it changed my life – I work as a freelancer and I have just moved to a new home where we need to do a lot of things so I felt I didn’t have enough time but since reading the book, I am feeling a lot more serene about the things I have/want to do and I am quite productive. In fact, my partner has decided to read the book too, seeing how serene and productive I am nowadays.

sguise

That’s great to hear. GTD is a timeless book (except that he recommends “palm pilots” in it). The book has changed my life too!

Anita Sanz

Excellent post! I’m a recovering multi-tasker…wonder if there is a support group for that? Multi-taskers Anonymous. There’d be people there texting and planning their grocery lists while group members were sharing, but hey… Seriously, though, as a psychotherapist, I have an occupational blessing/hazard of HAVING to not multitask in order to be effective. I cannot be processing other information (thinking about a previous client or event, planning for something in the future) while I am working with a client on his or her issues. I have to be 100% (or as close as possible) present with that person and not thinking about or doing anything else in order to do the best job I can. It’s actually a wonderful way to work…being 100% present hour after hour with people. Time almost seems to not exist…I don’t feel like I’ve been doing anything “for hours” even if I have. And if I remember to do this with other tasks, whether it’s paperwork, answering emails, blogging, household tasks, or parenting…it does make for an equally productive, serene, and healthy Anita! Thanks for taking the time to write this post.

Stephen Guise

Hi Anita,

Haha, yes…there should be a support group for multi-taskers! I think it’s great to have a job where you must focus. It definitely takes a lot of focus to listen to others intently and respond. I have been blown away by difference in the days that I focus vs. the scatterbrained multi-tasking days. Focus wins every time.

Thanks for your input!

Mehdi

Great post! I enjoyed it and definitely apply the non-mulitask strategies daily for boosting benefits. The video at the beginning in pretty outrageous as well. Thanks.

Stephen Guise

Haha, that video is unbelievable. Thanks for reading! Focus is challenging, but the reward is significant. I wish you the best in focusing!

Inam

A lot of people waste time pretending to be multitasking. It requires some serious planning/skill to actually pull off. Great video, Thanks.

Jess

I really enjoyed this post on multi-tasking and staying focused. I think it really…wait, SQUIRREL…what was it that I was talking about again? Oh yeah, focusing. I am not a very good multi-tasker, so I definitely agree with what you posted about. Thanks for posting!

Stephen Guise

Haha! That was awesome! SQUIRREL…

You know, squirrels used to be my favorite animal. But now, lions are.

If you’re into focusing, you should know that I’m changing the entire blog to focus on focusing and punching distractions in the face.

Chest Coach

Your absolutely right. In today’s world people value this horrible habit of multitasking. In job interviews, its as if they want a machine that can sit at a desk all day, crunch numbers, make presentations, and submit to a boss all at once.

I used to think multitasking was a valuable skill but through articles like this, I’ve learned better over time and the ability to focus on one task at a time not only gets so much more done, you finish each task stress-free. Your mind is not all over the place like you are when you multitask!

Jane't

This is a blessing I stumbled upon this cite. I am a mother of 4, wife and student pursuing psychiatry. I couldn’t begin to stress how I thought multi-tasking was the key to being successful. Awe! what a relief I thought I was lacking and evening having a learning disability in school. But, it was I was over the capacity my brain could do, use and store things. Wow!!! I feel liberated that I was sucked into all this madness this world has put into our society. I feel like I have a new direction and I can’t wait to start unlocking my full superior potential.

Stephen Guise

Yep, multi-tasking is a hoax that doesn’t work. If you want to get the most out of your mind, you’ve got to focus!

Please see this article for more about focusing – http://stephenguise.com/how-to-get-focused-today-in-5-steps/

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