The delusion of multitasking

Most people are really bad at multitasking and if you believe that you are an exception and you can multitask really well it most likely means that you deluding yourself and don’t even realize it. Majority of really important work gets created by people who focus on what they are doing and limit distractions. Let me give you couple of examples from my past. I spent several years as a software developer and the best code I produced was when I was “in the flow”, I was focused on the problem, ignored the environment around, ignored what time it is, whether I’m hungry or tired and got things done. Similarly, it applies to other situations like creating a strategy for my team, preparing a presentation for management, preparing for a difficult conversation or writing this article. Yes, I could do many of these things while being distracted and I often do, but in retrospect the quality of the work and the total time I spent on the task is heavily in favor of serial execution and not parallel. And at the end of the day when you have five tasks finished it feels much better than having ten tasks started and none finished.

If you have ever worked with a computer you may believe that these machines are the ultimate multitaskers. You can run numerous applications in parallel, do complex computations and have a skype chat with your friends, and all this at the same time. Well, not really. Assuming single processor computers what appears as multiprocessing is actually technique you may call time sharing, with individual tasks (or processes) waiting their turn to perform a simple operation and then let the other process have their turn. Human brain works pretty much the same way. It is switching from one context to another and it is doing it really fast so it creates an illusion of multitasking. Unfortunately this context switching has a price in terms of energy and time spent on it.

The human brain

Let us first look at the human brain. This is not a medical school and I’m not a doctor or neuroscientist so we will touch it just lightly.

The human brain is an approximately 1,5 kilograms of soft, tofu like, matter that even though representing only 2% of human mass consumes 20% of our energy. It is an incredible piece of machinery with some significant limitations. The brain has two hemispheres, left and right and they are pretty much the same with most of the features replicated on both sides, though there are exceptions, like ability to process language. Over the course of evolution it got one distinct feature that inhabits the biggest portion of our skull. It is called the cerebral cortex. It can be divided into four major lobes. The frontal lobe, the most recently developed that handles planning, reasoning, and abstract thought. This lobe allows us to imagine and is the most unique part of the human brain not available to other species. Parietal lobe is responsible for processing and integrating sensory information especially when it comes to touch and spatial orientation. Temporal lobe’s major responsibility is to handle language and memory. Occipital lobe deals with sense of sight and processing visual information.

The context switching as described above is happening in the prefrontal cortex, part of the frontal lobe. This part of our brain allows us to shelve a task we are working on and switch to something else. After completing the other action we can get back to the original task at the stage we left it. This gives us the feeling of multitasking. Curiously enough, the prefrontal cortex is one of the last parts of the brain to mature and first one to go so our perceived ability to multitask will be smaller when we are kids or when getting older.

Some tasks, like breathing or highly automated tasks like walking can be done very well in parallel with other tasks as they are managed by different parts of the brain. But the moment you need to use the same part of the brain the context switching comes into the play.

The cost of multitasking

David Meyer, a cognitive scientist at the University of Michigan says “When you perform multiple tasks that each require some of the same channels of processing, conflicts will arise between the tasks, and you’re going to have to pick and choose which task you’re going to focus on and devote a channel of processing to it.” “The bottom line is that you can’t simultaneously be thinking about your tax return and reading an essay, just as you can’t talk to yourself about two things at once.”

In a study performed by Cliff Nass from Stanford University and focused on our ability to consume multiple media content at the same time, the researchers compared two groups of people, ones who were used to routinely multitask (absorb numerous media content at the same time) and those who didn’t. The results showed that multitaskers are “lousy at everything that’s necessary for multitasking”. The funny thing is that because the same parts of the brain responsible for cognitive though are also responsible for evaluating our performance we don’t realize that we are bad at multitasking.

The most typical example from the professional environment would be sitting on a meeting listening to the presenter and at the same time writing email. In most cases the result is that you pay a bit more attention to one activity than to the other. At best you focus on one of them and write a good email but are surprised by a question from the speaker not having idea what he was talking about, at worst you not only have no clue what the presentation is about but you also wrote an email full of typos and incoherent thoughts.

Several studies showed that when a person is interrupted while working on a complex task it will take him up to 40 or 50 per cent longer to finish it. So when you have two five minutes tasks like writing email and talking to your boss and you do them in parallel they will take you longer and most likely the results will be poorly written email and crippled relationship with your boss. So if you are constantly doing several things in parallel you get the feeling of working really fast, but at the end of the day you produce less.

Wake up call

I always believed that I’m really good at multitasking. Until several years ago I had in one day couple of encounters that completely changed my perspective. I was running a pretty big organization back then so people would come to me with questions or problems all the time. That day I was putting together a set of rules for a new initiative, preparing a presentation and essentially putting all my focus on that activity. It took me about three hours. During that time several people from the team approached me asking for something. Every single time I would say something like “Hi, how can I help you,” without taking my eyes from the presentation, and when the person started to talk I would glance at him couple of times but my attention still on the work I’ve been doing. I promised to all of them that I will deal with their issue but forgot half of it and misunderstood the rest. The last person who came started to talk then stopped in the middle of sentence and said he will come another time and left. This actually woke me up! Up to that moment I believed I’m doing two things in parallel, working on my presentation and helping my team with their problems. Now I realized that I’ve been just working on my presentation and ignoring my team while being disrespectful to them and lying to myself. Since then I’m paying lots of attention to situations like this and if someone comes I either immediately tell them to come at different time or stop doing what I do, take a deep breath, turn to the person and give him my undivided attention.

The same goes to meetings. If I go to a meeting I leave my laptop behind (unless I need to take notes) or at least switch off wireless. We live in a busy world but if you are on a meeting and you have to do emails in parallel then you seriously limit your ability to do either of these well. All too often it happens that people are surprised by some action that was discussed on a meeting they attended but where they didn’t pay attention. It is disrespectful to others who truly participate and it is essentially lying to yourself.

Cultural perspective

Just to be clear on one aspect. As I mentioned in “Lack of time is just an illusion!” article there are cultures that put emphasis on goals, treat time like rare commodity and prefer serial execution. There are also cultures that see abundance of time, focus on personal relationships and prefer parallel execution. Both have some merits and both get things done just in a different way. The thoughts introduced in this article apply to both world views. It is just that the granularity of tasks may be slightly different, for example and to exaggerate a bit in the serial culture you would check your email once a day and in parallel culture once an hour.

What I would suggest to everyone who is always busy and juggling million different things at the same time is to divide the parallel execution to at least fifteen to twenty minutes long serially executed tasks. It will still feel like you are handling everything at the same time but you give your brain some leeway to really focus and don’t spend too much energy on context switching.

Twitter type summary: “The human brain is not wired for multitasking and if you believe that you are great at parallel execution you are just deluding yourself.”



Do you multitask? How do you do it? What tools or habits help you to keep track of everything and stay focused on the right priorities?

Photo: © Sergey Nivens / Dollar Photo Club

Categories: Life, Performance, Productivity

Tags: , , , ,

2 replies


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