The Multitasking Myth: Have You Been Sold A Fantasy?

Date posted:
Tue 26 February 2019

In this guest post, Paul Fitzgerald from Wundamail decodes the myth of multitasking.

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How many times have you heard someone say they’re good at multitasking? They can handle any number of jobs at the same time. No problem. Concentrate on three or four different projects at once. They insist that it’s one of their best skills, one of their greatest achievements. They’re so proud of having this ability, they actually put it in their CV - ‘good at multitasking’. They mention it at interviews. By doing everything at once, they insist, they're doing everything well.

Guess what. It’s not true. It’s a myth. Multitasking doesn’t actually exist. At least, not like we’re conditioned to believe it does anyway. It’s just one of those buzzwords, jargon, a concept we've all become familiar talking about without actually challenging it or debating it. Seriously. If you think you’re good at multitasking, you’re lying to yourself and everyone else. Stop it.

The human mind isn’t programmed to concentrate on more than one thing at once. The science on this is clear. Humans are mono-taskers, not multitaskers. Our brains are programmed to focus on one individual action before moving on to the next. One thing at a time. One study found that only 2.5 percent of people can effectively multitask. We may think we’re carrying out more than one activity at a time, but the undeniable truth is, we’re not. Because we can’t. It’s an illusion, that’s all.

Why does it matter anyway? Who cares? Well, it does matter and you definitely should care.

In actual fact, even attempting to multitask can slow us down, effectively reducing our productivity by up to 40%. We try to pull it off, because we think we can, we believe we’re good at it. But the simple truth is that the great majority of us - that 97.5 percent of us - simply don’t have the cognitive ability. Multitasking ensures we lose focus. Rather than concentrating on one thing at a time, doing it well and completing it, we start everything at once, give each thing less attention, take longer doing it, and don’t do it as well as we should.

The science on this tells us that to use our cognitive power, the brain needs a supply of fuel, in the form of oxygen and glucose. The more we have to think, the more fuel we need. This has a weakening, diluting effect on what our brains can achieve. We become less creative, absorb information slower, and make bad decisions. But still, we think we’re good at multitasking like it’s a good thing. One of our finest attributes. Yeah, right.

I hear you. I know what you’re thinking….Maybe we could learn how to multitask, train ourselves. Well…nope! It doesn’t work like that. The mental energy it requires means that the brain’s function would actually worsen with repeated attempts. And let’s be honest, the modern world and our growing dependence on our devices place more than enough demands on our attention as it is. Endless, incessant demands.

Think about your life and how you work. You’re stuck on a task, concentrating on getting it finished and completing it well. An urgent email comes in, you respond, and that leads you down a rabbit-hole, straight into a conversation you didn’t know you were about have five minutes ago. Then think about how long it takes you to get back into the original task you were focused on. It happens often. We think, in situations like this, that we’re multitasking. But the truth is, the demands have slowed us, slowed our minds through distraction. Our reactions aren’t as speedy as we think they are, and our productivity is reduced.

I remember the days when it was legal to use a mobile while driving, the days before the ban. The idea of it now seems so plainly ridiculous. And dangerous. But I spent nearly every journey driving around making calls and texting (no social media apps in those days, fortunately). I thought I was able to focus on my driving and my phone at the same time. Thinking of it now, I had so many close calls, so many near-death moments, I’m lucky to be sat here typing this now. And all because I thought I could multitask. I was wrong. And that’s why the phone ban was introduced. They changed the law because people were dying. Actually dying because other people thought they could multitask.

So what? What’s the answer? What can we do, if not multitasking?

Well, the answer could be to admit that its actually okay to focus on one thing at a time. To get it right and do it well before moving on to the next task. We could admit that we’re attempting to multitask because it makes us look good, or because it ‘sends out the right signals’. We could ignore the fact that trying to stay on top of everything at once just feels comfortable, even if we know deep down that the quality of our work suffers as a result.

We could pay closer attention, not to doing more, but to doing what’s needed the most. We could be more selective in prioritising the important tasks. Yes, that takes time and the results aren’t necessarily obvious straightaway, but it’s an absolute necessity once we admit that multitasking simply doesn’t work.

So rather than staying in the non-existent dreamworld of the multitasker, we should maybe look at other ways of managing our time to bring focus to what we do. The longer we practice these few tips, the better the results. Let’s forget about being everything to everyone. It’s an impossible and ultimately fruitless use of our time.

It starts with recognising the priorities. Separating out the important stuff and placing the less urgent aside. Emails and social media can wait. We can easily dip in and out of them as and when. Nobody wants a reply from us that urgently anyway. None of us are that important. The temptation might be to get the more minor tasks out of the way first. That still leaves the most important work til last, and that’s not a good plan. Far better to get the big jobs done well and in good time, with full and clear focus. We can sweat on the small stuff later.

If we find priorities need more time than we thought, then that’s exactly what should happen. We should set aside more time for them, rather than thinking it would help to go off and start on a handful of other tasks at the same time. We all find ourselves with down time in work, moments where we have space in our day. This is the perfect opportunity a time when we can give attention to the smaller stuff, checking those emails, replying to messages, interacting. The stuff that requires less focus. That way, we clear space and time to centre our attentions on the important stuff. And when we are thinking of the bigger tasks, we should eliminate distraction, get rid of interruptions. I say this all the time to people - switch the phone off. Try it. Just for an hour or two while you concentrate your energies doing the things that actually need doing. Once you get used to switching it off, you’ll see it as the liberation it is.

Knowing when and how to focus is the only skill we need. We’re not spinning plates here, we’re trying to find the most effective and productive way of working. We should start by recognising that multitasking doesn’t help, doesn’t contribute, doesn’t add anything.

In fact, put simply, it doesn’t exist.

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