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.


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

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