Multitasking and how to get more done.

Multitasking is an amazing thing. By doing multiple things at once, we can improve our efficiency and productivity. It’s the key to being successful and happy! Or so we’re told. But I’ve learned otherwise so I’m calling BS on this misleading myth. 

The truth is that multitasking is not all it’s cracked up to be. Over the past two years I’ve learned the limitations of multitasking, when it does work and, more importantly, when it doesn’t. All this came about through the research I’ve been doing to overcome the state of distraction that has become our norm. The science of how our brain works makes it abundantly clear that most of what we believe about multitasking just isn’t true.

Through MRI technology, science has shown that our brains are not actually able to think about two things at once. When we try to, our brain reacts one of two ways:

  • At best, it divides its resources in two, applying half to one task and half to the other.
  • Or, most probably, it jumps back and forth from one task to the other.

The fact is that our brains cannot apply full resources to two or more tasks at the same time. Instead being more productive and efficient through multitasking, we actually decrease the quantity and quality of our output.

To do two things at once is to do neither. – Publilius Syrus

Two things happen when our brain is forced to bounce from one thing to another quickly and repeatedly. First, it creates attention residue which makes it difficult for us to leave the first task completely behind so we can concentrate on the second task. Secondly, it depletes our neural resources, which leads to mental fatigue and makes it harder to concentrate. The result is that our ability to think is not as strong and effective as it could be. Asking your brain to focus on two things at once is like asking it to juggle. Inevitably things get dropped, and the time it takes to pick them up and start again is longer than if you focused on just one thing at a time. So, multitasking does not make us more efficient or productive.  

Last, but not least, our brains are hardwired for completion. When we start and finish something, we experience a hit of dopamine. But when we start something without completing it, we create an open loop in our brain, which cycles around and around in our subconscious mind. Because our brain wants us to close these open loops, it keeps reminding us of our unfinished business, wanting us to deal with it right away so we can complete it. The result of these constant reminders is an underlying sense of unease and stress, until we finally finish the tasks we’ve started.

Multitasking is the ability to screw up everything simultaneously. – Jeremy Clarkson

Now, this is not to say that multitasking doesn’t have its place. Simple tasks that don’t require much brain power are fine to juggle, such as scheduling, organizing, sorting, etc. But multitasking does not work when we need to pay attention and concentrate. That type of work has been defined as ‘deep work’ by Cal Newport. If your job requires you to develop thoughts and ideas—in the form of content, strategies, analysis or processes, for example—you need to do deep work. And deep work cannot be accomplished through multitasking.

So how does one get deep work done? By monotasking—do one thing at a time and do it well. It sounds so simple but many are finding that harder and harder to do. It requires making one thing your priority and putting everything else aside for a specified period. During that time, you need to eliminate distractions and potential interruptions. And, most of all, you need to mentally commit to focusing on that one thing until it’s done. Then and only then should you move on to something else. Keep this up and, ultimately, you will get more done.

I’ve seen huge improvements in my work by spending more time monotasking over the past two years. My productivity and efficiency have improved, which I had anticipated. But what I didn’t realize is how much more satisfied I would be with the work I do. I often felt uneasy when I was multitasking, as if I wasn’t doing enough. Yes, I was getting work done but not as much as I wanted to—and I felt it wasn’t my best work. Now that I monotask, I’m more relaxed and happy with what I'm accomplishing. So, why don’t you give it a go? Let go of the multitasking myth and learn to focus on one thing at a time. It’s well worth it.

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