Single-Tasking

Published in Accelerate Magazine, 2016

The term “multitask” originally appeared in 1965, in an IBM paper describing the capabilities of the System/360.  Ever since then scientists have been asking the question: can humans effectively multitask?  

The short answer is: no.

The long answer is: you can do two things at once, but your attention to one or both of them will suffer if you try.  

The scary answer is: you’re actually harming yourself if you try multitasking on a regular basis.

Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D and author of the book Make Your Brain Smarter: Increase Your Creativity, energy and Focus says that “multitasking is brain drain that exhausts the mind, zaps cognitive resources and, if left unchecked, condemns us to early mental decline and decreased sharpness.  Chronic multitaskers also have increased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which can damage the memory region of the brain.”

Multitasking is actually a myth.  Our brains don’t focus on two or more things at once.  Instead, when we’re working on a budget while reading incoming email, listening to a podcast and keeping an eye on a co-worker’s progress, our brains are constantly switching from one activity to another.  That switching is responsible for chemical reactions that are detrimental to your proficiency, efficiency and health.

The next time you’re working on your computer with a plethora of windows open and your phone nearby, remember this Michigan State University study:  300 students were given a computer test with interruptions in the form of pop-ups that required the students to enter a code.  Some of the interruptions lasted 2.8 seconds, and some lasted 4.4 seconds.  The students made double the errors when they returned to the test after the 2.8-second interruption and quadruple the errors after the 4.4-second interruptions.

Quickly switching from one activity to another also programs your brain to have a short attention span.  Leo Babauta, author of focus, A simplicity manifesto in the Age of Distraction says “This is why it’s so hard to learn to focus on one thing at a time again.”

So, why do we keep doing it?  There’s a soon to be outdated perception of prestige surrounding the person with the plethora of windows open.  Also each of those beeps and whistle notifications from our phones and computers cause our brains to release an addicting jolt of dopamine.  When you switch back to your original task, your brain pings the “newness” alarm and the dopamine releases again, feeding our desire for more and perpetuating the brain-draining cycle.  

Switching your brain from one task to another also burns glucose, and depleted glucose levels cause us to get tired and experience brain fog.  If you feed that lethargic brain fog with what it craves – glucose in the form of sweets and starches – you’re giving yourself another cyclical reward (and possibly several unwanted pounds).

Kevin Lee of Fast Company suggests that we break the multitasking habit and focus on one activity at a time, with as few distractions and interruptions as possible.  Practice minimalism by making a to-do list first, then silence your phone, close your email, open one window at a time and focus on a rhythm for your work, rather than allowing random, real-time alerts.  Work for 25 minutes, and then take a 5-minute break to rest your mind.

If you want to take it one step further and really up your game, take some time to reflect on the work you’ve done.  Business psychologists from Harvard, UNC and HEC Paris recently published the results of a series of productivity experiments finding that people who take time to reflect on their activities perform significantly better on subsequent challenges.

Now go do one amazing thing!