The Controversial Truth About Multi-Tasking You Have To Know


What is the second leading cause of accidents after driving under the influence?

The answer might surprise you — it's speaking on your mobile phone. If you think you’re OK using hands-free – you are not.

Hundreds of deaths each year are needlessly caused by drivers who are distracted by a phone call. You might think that you're amazing at multi-tasking. In fact, none of us is able to multi-task.

Our attention simply switches from one task to another, meaning that we are only ever able to focus properly on one thing at a time.

Multi-tasking is a myth which can kill you as the article How To Live Longer By Avoiding Distractions makes clear.

Here are five important facts about multi-tasking.

1. Our Brains Are Not Designed For Multi-Tasking

If you and I are walking along together and I ask you to do a complicated mathematical calculation in your head – it is quite likely that you will stop walking while you do the maths.

Pat the top of your head while rubbing your stomach in a circular direction – difficult isn’t it? How about listening to someone in a crowded bar while trying to eavesdrop on another conversation?

Or that moment when the lecturer’s gaze fall upon you and asks for your opinion when you’d actually been thinking about what to eat for dinner. We are just not good at multitasking.

In fact, you cannot handle multi-tasking at all. What happens is that you switch your attention from one thing to the next thing. Each time you do so, your cognitive performance drops as you crank through the gears.

Over the course of a day, too much task switching will deplete your brain’s energy store and you will end up making really bad decisions.

If you really want a frightener, how about the fact that too much task-switching and the stress that goes with it will also shrink the grey matter in your pre-frontal cortex?

For millennia, human beings had to stay focused and alert for danger. Those who did not get eaten.

2. What Not To Do At Match Point

Imagine you are serving for the Wimbledon Single’s Title on match point.

You bounce the ball four times like you always do, then just before you toss the ball in the air you check your watch. Your serve flies over the line and it’s back to deuce. Unlikely I know.

However, the focus that people engaging in complex tasks describe when they are ‘in the zone' is referred to as a flow state. A flow state is when you experience a total focus on a single task – and it is what enables us to achieve world-class performance.

We live in a distraction-rich environment. Our phones are constantly buzzing, our inboxes jangle or send us pop-ups. If you want to achieve something difficult and if that task requires your focus to be undistracted, it makes sense to remove as many of these distractions as possible. Here are some examples of what you can do.

  1. Put your phone in aeroplane mode.
  2. Disconnect from the internet for a designated period – there are apps that can do this for you.
  3. Close the door to your office if you have one. If you can’t, wear headphones and use the Focus At Will app to serve you sounds or music that are designed to help you focus.
  4. If distracting thoughts keep jostling for attention, write them down in a notebook so you can look at them later.

3. Put Time In A Box

If you want a simple hack to improve your ability to single task productively – bunch similar kinds of activity together.

For example, rather than stepping in and out of emails each day, define two periods of fifteen minutes in the morning and afternoon when you will do emails. 

Your productivity will increase markedly by doing this. This technique is sometimes called time-boxing or the Pomodoro technique.

The other hack I recommend is this.

Have you ever found that if you are late for your first appointment, it is really hard to get back on schedule for the rest of the day?

To avoid this and the consequent pressure it creates, be really disciplined about building in buffer time between your appointments.

4. Your Undivided Attention

If you are in a meeting and one of your colleagues is continually looking at their mobile phone what do you conclude?

If you are a leader, one of the most powerful things you can do is to give someone your undivided attention.

When you do so you are being respectful to whoever you are talking with, and you will also make a positive lasting impression.

Leadership is a social process, so be present and give the people you are interacting with your undivided attention.

If you are a leader, one of the most powerful things you can do is to give someone your undivided attention.

Click to Tweet

5. Come Up For Air Regularly

Researchers studied individual parole decisions by judges. They compared judges, matching the decisions they made for criteria such as the type of crime committed, the sentence, the length of time served, the conduct of the applicant and so on.

What they found is shocking.

Your chances of getting parole decline over the course of the morning, reaching a low point just before lunch. The same pattern is repeated after lunch.

The reason this happens is that these are difficult decisions to make, and each decision uses up a little of the judge’s brain glucose. The easier decision is to deny parole – there is no risk in that decision.

As their brains tired, they became less likely to think something through and weigh all the evidence and made the easier choice.

If you think you are a more rational decision maker than a judge, that might be stretching things.

So if you want to achieve better quality decision-making over a number of hours, take regular breaks, stretch, walk around and make sure you keep yourself properly fuelled. I find setting an hour timer on my laptop works for me when I’m doing a lot of desk work.

Remember too that Newton had to wait for an apple to fall on his head, and Archimedes for the bath to overflow for their breakthroughs to occur.

If you give your mind a rest, it will repay you with greater creativity, and clearer decision-making.

If you’re interested in single-tasking, then read this Singletasking: Get More Done - One Thing at a Time by Devora Zack.

Useful Articles