The myth of multi-tasking

Do you love to multi-task?  Are you getting actually more done? The answer might surprise you.

There is increasing pressure to do more these days, isn’t there? We are all good at fooling ourselves about how much ‘stuff’ we are getting done.  And we think that multi-tasking helps with this. Surely if we can feed the baby, answer an email and catch up on ‘I’m a celebrity’ all at the same time, we are being very productive?  We like to think so, and there’s a very good reason why.  It’s emotionally satisfying and makes us feel productive, but it’s a total illusion. I work in a business which is flexible, and fits around our busy lives, and I was still working full-time when I started.  So I understand how seductive the idea of doing several things at once can be.

Humans can’t multi-task at all (no, shock horror, not even women)

Computers can perform lots of tasks in parallel, that is, at the same time.  But human brains don’t work like that.  We can’t perform more than one job at a time.  Studies have shown that even trying to combine simple repetitive tasks like walking,  with other tasks such as talking, can affect the performance of both (ask any of the unfortunates shown in videos of people talking on their phones and walking into or tripping over simple obstacles like lamp posts). 

We all know the potential disastrous effects of texting and driving, but there is plenty of evidence showing that even talking, whether hands free on a phone, or to a passenger, is also very distracting.  This is because we don’t actually multi-task at all.   What we actually do is task switch.  So, although a computer can literally multi-task, the operating system, usually Windows, can’t do it quite so well.  It tends to switch.  And you only have to sit there for a very short time waiting for the screen to refresh when you move from a document to your email, to see how inefficient that is.

A time waster

In fact, it takes about 1/10th of a second for the brain to switch tasks, so very fast (a lot faster than Windows, at least on my laptop!)  But if you add it up over a day, it represents a lot of wasted time.  Imagine all the time wasted at traffic lights between changes when no one is moving. It’s a bit like that.  And if your task is one that requires some thinking or effort, there’s plenty of evidence to show that it takes about 25 minutes to get back into it, so that’s a massive productivity hit. Add to that the amount of brain fuel used up by constant switching, which will make you feel very tired, and you can see the potential loss in productivity.

It’s different for girls – no, it isn’t

Sorry to anyone of my gender who is feeling a little smug about this, but the idea that women can multi-task better than men is, if you like, a sub-myth. There is absolutely no evidence for this at all.  Humans can’t multi-task, irrespective of gender.  There is some evidence that women can cope better with task switching, but it’s not conclusive and it’s not multi-tasking.

Are there any plus sides?

There are a few occasions when it can be useful:

If one of the tasks is really easy, or something you can do unconsciously, there is little downside. Listening to music while you exercise can help you exercise more. Doodling can help you concentrate during a boring lecture. Sending a message while you’re queuing for a coffee uses dead time to accomplish something.  It can help us break up a long boring job.  But mostly, it has a really negative effect. 

How do we deal with this?

Admitting that our multi-tasking is an ineffective way of working, is a very good first step.  But what else can we do?

  • Plan our time.  Work in blocks of time, depending on the kind of task, and how enjoyable it is.  For some types of work, 25 minutes barely gets you warmed up, so allow the right amount of time.
  • Prioritising.  Do important jobs first. Seems obvious, doesn’t it?  Bit we often get distracted by the quick wins, things we enjoy or other trivial tasks.
  • Focus.  We probably all need to practice this.  Concentrating entirely on one task for a period of time.  So switching off notifications, audible and visual, can really help here.
  • Take breaks.  Long breaks, especially outside or away fro the job, can really help with productivity.  And they give the brain that essential down time when it’s less occupied and can often come up with creative breakthroughs that don’t happen when we are busy being busy.  Even short breaks will allow the brain to re-fuel and cut down on that feeling of tiredness and desire for caffeine.
  • And, probably most important these days, no phone (or tablet)! Put it away, on silent, and don’t look at it till you take a break.  The world will still carry on and so will your work.