I am a recovered busy person. I also used to take pride in being busy – until I started to understand what multitasking is. For us women especially, we take pride in multitasking because of how our brains work differently from men’s. So, when I actually did the research, I found out that multitasking was working against me. In today’s blog and podcast episode 009 I talk about how we have to stop taking pride in being so busy, and start taking pride in our productivity.
To understand this, let’s go over the three kinds of multitasking:
Don’t confuse it with background tasking. These are things like listening to a podcast while driving or watching TV while exercising. These are efficient ways to use your time and use different areas of your brain.
What we call multitasking is actually switch tasking – juggling two or more tasks by refocusing your attention back and forth between projects. It makes us feel like we’re moving faster and gives the illusion that we’re doing two tasks simultaneously. In reality, you are switching back and forth rapidly.
Reading your email and talking on the phone involves the same part of your brain. They can’t be done at the same time. For example, you’re on the phone with your friend and you’re chatting for awhile, and then you realize that that person isn’t 100% there. You’ll hear long pauses or a change in their tone. Has this ever happened to you? Or maybe you’ve done this yourself?
Your brain can only do one activity at a time for each section that it has. You need to make sure you’re utilizing each one has well as possible, focusing your attention on the task that needs to take up the majority of your attention. And sure – there’s room for automatic behaviors, like chewing gum, walking, etc. The brain takes the plans for your future behaviors and helps you to ignore the distractions. Like a conductor, it decides which track it’s going to go on.
The executive section of your brain works to move your thoughts and activities in a certain direction. For example, when you’re watching TV and someone else is having a conversation in the room, the executive section of your brain will prioritize the visual information and dampen the auditory information. It will focus on what you’re wanting to do (watch TV) and turn the other down.
There are two distinct stages for this: Goal-shifting – meaning, “I want to do this now instead of that,” and rule activation – meaning, “I’m turning on the rules for this, and turning off the rules for that.” Both help shift between the tasks, without you even being aware it has taken place.
Sometimes we get overconfident with the skills our brain has. That’s why, according to The National Safety Council, one in four car accidents happen because we’re on our cell phone, thinking we can multitask. This is something I struggle with. When I hear my phone, it takes a lot for me to not check it. But I know I shouldn’t for obvious safety reasons and to set an example for my kids.
It’s not an easy thing to do to break these habits, but productivity has a cost when you’re multitasking. The settings in your brain compete for each other. It’s like tug of war between Task A and Task B. Experts estimate that switching between these tasks can cause a 40% loss in productivity. And the worst part? You tend to be more error prone. You are working slower and less effectively.
It’s not an easy thing to do to break these habits, but productivity has a cost when you’re multitasking.
A recent study from Western Washington University found that 75% of students on a college campus who were all talking on their phones didn’t see a clown on a unicycle riding right beside them. This is crazy! And it’s called inattentional blindness. For Productivity Paradox episode 009, I talk about this same topic and posted videos to test inattentional blindness. It’s really interesting because when you’re focused on something else, like your phone, your brain won’t register other things. Go to the podcast Show Notes to test your inattentional blindness and see how you do. While this is interesting and fun, it can also be scary and a much needed wake-up call!
So, we can see that we’ve been tricked into thinking that multitasking is the best way. We like the feeling of completing a task and checking it off so much that it actually gives us a small amount of Dopamine. And Dopamine’s best friend is Cortisol, the stress hormone. When we’re constantly shifting gears, we’re pumping up the stress in our brain, and that causes exhaustion.
We know we need to break the habit of “being busy” and multitasking. It’s just not the best method of productivity and it’ll wear you out! In a new blog and in episode 010, I will be giving you all a solution. And that solution is called monotasking.