Fragmented attention, a constant sense of urgency and repeated checks on a seemingly endless to-do list are commonplace at work these days. We are constantly being pulled in multiple directions. We use our cell phones when we drive, check e-mails during meetings, and eat lunch while scrolling through our news feeds. With increased information sources and ever increasing choices, it is no surprise that multitasking has become second nature to us. It is almost unavoidable. And most often, technology is to blame.
But if multitasking is as damaging for us as neuroscientists have come to believe or as counter-productive as managers now speculate, why do we keep going back to it?
I see three primary reasons:
Monotasking is boring
The thought of mono-tasking makes me think of a production line from the industrial era with people continuously doing repetitive tasks like cogs in a machine. No way do I want to imagine myself being in that position. Besides, that routine is very atypical of what is expected of entrepreneurs, managers and employees in the corporate world.
Multitasking ‘feels’ more productive
Multi-tasking presents itself as a solution to our continual lack of time and has for long been valued by employers. From a managerial and administrative point of view, the notion is highly appealing. It also makes one feel as if they are getting more work done. It is satisfying.
Our brains have rewired for multitasking
I certainly remember a time before the immense technological distraction of today, but for the upcoming generations, this is how the world is. Technology and multiple information streams are no longer a distraction – they are the usual way of life. To expect them to ‘not be distracted by technology’ would be no less than cruel.
Technology has changed the way we live our lives, do our work and learn things. It has also rewired our brains so that we are now more easily distracted and find it harder to pay attention to a single task for a longer period of time.
Why is multitasking a problem if we are so hardwired to it?
I find it pretty unnecessary to list down the problems associated with multitasking. Surprisingly, Google does a great job at helping you find reasons not to multitask. But for the sake of completion, however, and very briefly, studies suggest that multitasking is counter-productive and brain damaging. The damage includes harm to the part of the brain that allows us to focus and pay attention, reduced brain density in areas that control empathy, and disrupted short-term memory.
If you want to go into the details of these effects, watch the TedxStanford talk: Are you multitasking your life away [Watch from after 8:00 minutes in the video], by late Clifford Nass, human-computer communication expert at Stanford University. He explains in detail how multitasking affects the brain. You can also read this article on Business Insider which also quotes Nass on ‘How multitasking reshapes the brain’.
Solution: Become an intelligent multitasker
To me, multitasking and monotasking are primarily two extremes of the same spectrum. The spectrum identifies how many tasks or activities have to share your mental and physical resources at one time and how quickly we switch between tasks.
Where on this spectrum we find ourselves performing best will be determined by the kind of tasks we are performing, how familiar you are with the tasks and how often you do them, and whether they require unrelated mental and physical resources or not.
Having said that, multitasking, like monotasking, is a tool. You can use it for better or worse. It is time to adapt to the changing requirements of the workplace and understand the difference between productive, ‘mindful’ multitasking and habitual distraction, rather than try to give up multitasking altogether.
Here are a few tips to adopt mindful multitasking:
Eliminate distractions Anything you are doing to avoid or escape from the actual task at hand is a distraction [and a sign of procrastination], not multitasking. Checking your e-mail every two minutes in the middle of a task, for example. Turn off unnecessary notifications, shut down extra browser tabs, and go offline on instant chat messengers.
When pressed on time, choose tasks wisely To do two things simultaneously, choose tasks that do not require the same physical and mental resources. For example, speaking over the phone and folding your laundry can be done with no difficulty. Compare this to folding a shirt and a pant at the same time, or talking over the phone and trying to transcribe a video. Not a great idea and probably not possible.
Combine related tasks Switching between tasks can be taxing but not too much if the tasks are related. For example, while writing this blog, I stopped a few times to read up on research on multitasking or look for expert opinion on the neuroscience of multitasking. That way my brain didn’t have to deal with attention residue [when switching between tasks, our attention doesn’t follow as quickly and some of it is still focused on the task we just left making it difficult to fully concentrate on the new task].
Take breaks Multitasking is taxing on the brain. To reboot your brain, take a nap or go for a walk. The idea is to disconnect yourself from all work and stressful thoughts. Even more important is to not feel guilty about taking a break. If your breaks are accompanied by the guilt of wasting time, they are almost as good as none. Know that you deserve it and NEED it to work efficiently.
Don’t self-impose multitasking on yourself Just because you can multitask does not mean you have to. Procter & Gamble Senior Making & PC&IS Project Engineer, Muhammad Salman Yousuf. Salman believes that multitasking can sometimes be unavoidable but to be productive ‘skills such as prioritisation, time management, analytical reasoning and problem solving come into play.’ Prioritise your tasks and focus on the most important ones, first. Try and identify repetitive tasks and automate them whenever possible. A lot of apps now help automate tasks - use them. You can also outsource or delegate tasks to someone if possible or completely eliminate the need for the task or excessive decision making from your life. Ask yourself if something is really necessary to do? Do you really need to make the choice of wearing a different pair of shoes every morning? Can you pre-decide what to order for lunch every day? These little changes in life can free up a lot of space in your life.
Practice and familiarity Did you have trouble having a conversation with your friends when you initially started learning to drive? I did. It was a few months into my driving lessons that I managed to be able to fully concentrate on a conversation while driving. How did it become so much easier? The more familiar you are with a particular task, the easier it is to combine it with another. For a long time, I struggled to understand how my mother could whip up a dessert, fry samosas, and make tea – all simultaneously and in perfect time. Practice and familiarity – I now know.
Understand and accept when multitasking must be avoided Some things lend themselves flawlessly to multitasking. These are primarily tasks that use physical resources more than mental resources – house wives and mothers do it all the time. But there are other tasks that require you to be laser focused and demand full attention. Fahad, one of our editorial contributors, interviewed Dr. Zeeshan Rizvi, who is a recent graduate of University of Georgia and a process control engineer at Corning Inc. USA. Dr Zeeshan’s primary work involves developing algorithms followed by rigorous coding and simulations to solve a problem. 'The hallmark of intensive tasks is that they require immense attention and focus; this makes it impossible for us to multitask without compromising on the efficiency of the task at hand,’ he says. ‘I recently joined an industrial Research and Development facility where our team is involved in performing cutting-edge research to push the boundary of process-control optimisation for material science applications. If we want to efficiently solve the task at hand, we have to be laser-focused. Multi-tasking may appear more productive at a glance, but that productivity is achieved at the cost of errors and mistakes,’ he explained.
Set out time for intensive work Creating a routine helps develop habits. Dedicate a time each day for tasks that require full concentration and stick to the time limit set. That way you are also conscious not to waste time on distractions to be able to complete the task in the set time. It is a way of training the brain to know what it has to do and when.
Meditate Meditation as a solution has irked me every time I read it in a blog. Why would you ask me to meditate? But it has only been 2 months since I have started to spend a mere 10 minutes of mindfulness and I can already see the difference. This also brings me to the last point.
Use the advice Reading the blog is not going to help. Unless you try it out for yourself, you will never figure out what works and what doesn’t. So, what is the first thing you can do when you finish reading this blog?
[We will be speaking to neurogeneticist, Ashiq H Khan in the coming week to find out what he thinks about multitasking and the working of the brain. Subscribe to our newsletter to know more about what he has to say!]