Why multitasking is a bug⏤not a feature

Stop multitasking! Research shows that it does more harm than good. Here's how and why you should break that habit and start 'single-tasking'.
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Presuming for a moment that you aren’t a member of an uncontacted Amazonian tribe who happens to have internet access and a good grasp of the English language, you live in a complex world of multitasking.

However, an abundance of research and literature suggests that multitasking is actually more damaging than helpful. According to the experts, multitasking causes us to be less productive, make more mistakes, and suffer from stress. On the other hand, the human brain is better equipped to tackle tasks one at a time, allowing us to focus fully on the job in hand. Perhaps multitasking is a bug, not a feature.

Headspace or headache?

We live in a time where mental health is taken seriously and practices like mindfulness are more than mere fads. But we also live in a time of increased social scrutiny, both online and ‘offline’. This has made us obsessed with self-improvement, especially in the younger generations. This may have its perks, with more and more people interested in exercise and healthy eating, and even lifelong learning. It is no wonder that lifestyle movements such as Hygge, minimalism, and Marie Kondo’s KonMari method have taken off. However, the negative impacts of social media and other elements of modern life have led to an unprecedented rise in depression, anxiety, and suicide rates. So, why do we do it and what can we do to change it?

Why we multitask

The modern world is plagued by a multitasking pandemic. It is rife in both our workplaces and personal schedules. We, as individuals and a collective, have an inclination to multitask at all times; we simply cannot help but do extra things on top of our main activity⏤perhaps due to the demands of modern day life. Multitasking is sometimes harmless, such as listening to music whilst doing housework or listening to audiobooks whilst driving. However, it can also be very damaging. We need to be cognizant of the unsustainability of such an inclination. Let’s break this problem down into its key parts:

  • We are forever conducting satellite activities that orbit our main activity (e.g. using our phones while watching Netflix or meeting up with friends)
  • This causes a separation between ourselves and our actions;
  • This causes us to suffer from a loss of attention;
  • This results in a reduction in the quality of our presence and performance (creating absence and negligence);
  • This cycle repeats and reinforces bad habits.

A galaxy of time and space

Satellite activities are the things we do that we don’t need to do but do anyway. They are the things that get in the way of our productivity and downtime, orbiting our main activity. Satellites can be as harmless as scrolling through Facebook as your toast burns, or as fatal as checking your notifications as your car careens into oncoming traffic.

Satellites aren’t committed exclusively with smartphones⏤the above examples could easily have used a newspaper and a roadmap. However, you will come to realize that the majority of satellite activities today are technology-related⏤we will explore this phenomenon in more detail in a later episode.

The orbit of these satellites affects the course of the main activity. In other words, they get in the way. The more satellites that orbit the main activity, the more distance there is between us and our actions. We may be using space analogies, but it certainly isn’t rocket science. The natural consequence of this is a loss of attention. There is simply no way we can concentrate on multiple things at once. Guy Winch, Ph.D., suggests that what we tend to call multitasking is actually task-switching, and it stops us from getting “in the zone”.

You’ll struggle to be the best version of yourself

Multitasking robs you of a powerful focus you could be directed towards a single important task. It reduces our efficiency and performance because our brains can only focus on one thing at a time. When we try to do two things at once, our brain lacks the capacity to perform both tasks successfully. When we lose focus, the quality of our end product is naturally affected.

Worse still, those who think they are born multitaskers may be the least capable of us all. This may because they are, more often than not, balancing multiple tasks, whereas those who rarely multitask have a little more space on their hard drive, so to speak. The human brain does not have multi-core processing capabilities, in the sense that we can only pay attention to one thing at a time.

Imagine a pie chart representing your attention: every satellite we add takes away from the main slice. Worst of all, these practices quickly become bad habits that are easy to fall into and difficult to get out of because there is something attractive about outsourcing our problems with distractions. Our satellites can very quickly become perfunctory and overpowering. So, what can we do about it?

Why you should become a single-tasker

In our fast-paced lives, doing one thing at a time can feel luxurious or even wasteful. But single-tasking is almost always the better option. Single-tasking opens up a world of benefits, not least being able to give your full attention to your work or family. The potential gains are huge and there is nothing to lose, given that multitasking is less productive than doing a single thing at a time. Everything you lose in multitasking, you stand to regain in single-tasking. You will no longer be passive in your actions but present and “in the zone”. There are numerous ways you can easily implement single-tasking techniques into your current lifestyle, and the results can be dramatic.

Dr. Rob Winningham suggests that perhaps some people multitask because it “activates the reward centers in the brain and releases the feel-good-neurotransmitter known as dopamine”. Completing minor satellite tasks, including checking your social media notifications, allows you to tick something off your list⏤no matter how trivial. However, simplifying the process declutters the mind and allows you to get things done⏤even if the task in hand is simply to have a good night’s sleep.

If the mindfulness trend has taught us anything, it is the value of being present in the moment and acknowledging thoughts as they arise in the mind. Would you rather be the mother actively playing in the park with her child or the mother that stares gormlessly into her phone as her child is deprived of attention?

What little these satellites add to your life pales in comparison to the amount that they take away. Technology is great, by all means, but there is a time and a place⏤and as a single-tasker, you can quite literally schedule time-to-waste without it impacting your life. Single-tasking allows you to be present when it matters most, be that work or family.

Treat your brain

Single-tasking is also better for your brain, especially when it comes to using media. According to neuroscientists at the University of Sussex, higher levels of media multitasking corresponds to a lower density of grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in attention, decision-making, and impulse control (e.g. performance monitoring and error detection).

In the modern world, we are inundated with devices and notifications vying for our precious time and attention. Consider for a moment how many browser tabs or smartphone apps you have open this very instance⏤if it’s not nearing double-figures, you’re in the minority. To single-task is to remove these distractions and treat your brain well.

Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, psychologists of Harvard University, found that people spend almost 47% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re currently doing. That is a world away from the efficiency that is commonly thought to be achieved by multitasking. With a SMART plan in place, single-tasking cuts out the middleman, allowing you to focus fully on the job in hand for the allotted time.

If you’re prone to checking your phone or your emails, come up with an achievable routine that takes this into account; for instance, 25 minutes of work followed by five minutes of unapologetic time-wasting. Your procrastination may even end up feeling like time well spent, and you’ll be fresh and ready-to-go again.

Well, what are you waiting for?

If you are keen to start implementing single-tasking into your current routine, there is a wealth of great information out there waiting to be explored. Joshua Becker, the author of ‘The More of Less’, has shared some great tips to get you single-tasking in no time. The prospect of increased focus, productivity, and presence in the moment along with reduced stress levels and distractions makes converting to single-tasking a real no-brainer.

This article only scratches the surface of the single-tasking movement; its true virtue is found only in its application. Plan your days the night before, and take things step-by-step. Removing common distractions from the equation will declutter your mind and let you focus on what really matters.

Make sure to join us for the next installment where we will show you how you can become a digital minimalist and take back control of your online identity.

Until then.

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