Want to Improve Your Life and Work? Stop Multi-tasking. Seriously.
Maybe it’s time to leave multi-tasking to computers.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much more enjoyable and productive my life is since I stopped multi-tasking and started single-tasking. That’s heresy, I know, especially in a world where we willingly keep a smartphone by us every moment of the day. But I began noticing how multi-tasking was actually preventing me from accomplishing what I set out to do and making me more, rather than less stressed. I started to look for other answers.
The origin of multi-tasking.
I remember “multi-tasking” as a new buzzword that emerged early in my career in computer software. Our company had developed logistics software that could handle complex business processes on personal computers (PCs) rather than more costly, cumbersome mainframes. We knew we needed faster PCs that had enough processing power to replace legacy mainframes. One way to do this was to create computers that could multi-task, or perform multiple processes at the same time. Technology evolved to achieve this, our love of multi-tasking was born.
It took almost no time to make the short leap from computer multi-tasking to human multi-tasking. In hiring, we looked for people who characterized themselves as high-level multi-taskers. We worked at improving our own multi-tasking and we all rejoiced when smartphones hit the scene, enabling us to do even more, juggling work and personal tasks at the same time all on one device. Multi-tasking became the mantra that we all built our lives around.
The thing is, computers can multitask, but humans can’t.
Our brain is not wired to multi-task on activities requiring deep focus or high brain function, but nonetheless, we still believe we can do it. The convenience of communication enabled by the Internet and mobile technology have only furthered that misconception. Now we can visit with friends, work, send email, text, drive, eat, do laundry, be on a conference call and play Words with Friends all at the same time.
But is this helping us doing anything well?
One research study funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London found that workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.¹ Multi-tasking also causes errors ranging from serious car accidents as a result of distracted driving to miscalculations or misinterpretations as a result of distracted listening.
According to Dr. JoAnn Deak, a noted educator and author of Your Fantastic Elastic Brain, “When you try to multi-task, in the short-term it doubles the amount of time it takes to do a task and it usually at least doubles the number of mistakes.”² According to an article in Inc. magazine, “Multi-tasking has also been found to increase production of cortisol, the stress hormone. Having our brain constantly shift gears pumps up stress and tires us out, leaving us feeling mentally exhausted (even when the work day has barely begun).”³
These are just a few of many attention-getting findings on multi-tasking that should make us rethinking its effectiveness. Experts like Dr. Deak also note that constant multi-tasking is actually changing our brains, eroding our long-term concentration skills and corrupting our ability to decipher irrelevant information from what is important.
Maybe that’s what causes people to focus on the text message they’re sending instead of the fact that they’re driving 70 miles per hour on a busy road, regardless of the risk they’re imposing to themselves and others.
Single-tasking opens the door to a much improved quality of life.
I didn’t know all these things about multi-tasking when I began my quest to find a less stressful way to work. I just knew that it was having a pretty big detrimental effect on my day. I read up on ways to prioritize my time, use check lists to manage my work, etc., but then I found an article about The Pomodoro Technique, a time management invented by Francesco Cirillo in the early 1990s. As their website says, this technique teaches you to work with time, not against it.
The method is simple: rather than focusing on multiple tasks or activities at once, you:
- Choose a task from your planner or task list
- Set a timer to 25 minutes
- Work on the task until the timer rings, make a check mark on your task list
- Take a short break (five minutes) and
- For every four Pomodoros, take a longer break. This can be 15 to 30 minutes, whatever makes you feel rested and ready to take on the next task.
That’s it. Pretty easy, right? It is, but the first step is that you have to choose to ignore your email and cellphone. Honestly, that was the hardest part. I was fine with trying it for 25 minutes at a time but at first, I felt very uneasy about not staying “connected.” After working this way for a few days, however, it became apparent that even though my work requires frequent interaction with clients and peers, no one really noticed that 25-minute gap. I was free to focus on projects that required planning, writing and organizing. The surprising thing is how much you can get done in a 25-minute block of time if you’re free to fully focus on the task.
The other surprise is that my relationships with others did not suffer. I learned to build in time to check emails, etc. between tasks, varying the time slots based on the interaction required. If a 25-minute time block got interrupted, I learned how to negotiate. If the matter needed immediate attention I’d handle it. Otherwise, I scheduled a follow up on a break.
By balancing my tasks with check-in breaks, I felt much more in charge of my day.
I also experimented with how many 25-minute blocks I could squeeze into a day. For the first day I did the Pomodoro Method, I aimed for eight blocks (big plans of whittling down that to-do list), but I actually squeezed in five. I hit a lower number than initially projected but the feeling of satisfaction I gained from the quality and quantity of work I was able to do was more than an ample reward. It was far more than I’d achieve if I’d been multi-tasking.
Rather than feeling stressed at the end of the workday, I felt pleased with my accomplishments.
That was about six months ago. I still have the same workload, but now I choose to focus 100% on what I am doing whether it is listening to a conference call, talking to a team member, writing a blog post, reviewing a document, etc. Since choosing single-tasking, I’ve been able to accomplish more in a shorter time frame. I’ve fallen back into multi-tasking a few times, but it didn’t take long to see how stressful it was and how negatively it affected my productivity and work.
Alan Henry has posted a helpful blog about how to use the Pomodoro Method on Lifehacker.com, titled “Productivity 1010: A Primer to the Pomodoro Technique.” His article summarizes it as a good way to reduce distractions, build your concentration and your attention span. It also helps you stay on deadline.
I’ve found all of these things to be true. But best of all, the Pomodoro Method makes for a much better day, every day. I like my work more than ever, and I enjoy the time I spend away from it better now too.
If you’ve struggled with multi-tasking and finding a work/life balance I’d love to hear your thoughts.
¹Christine Rosen, “The Myth of Multitasking,” The New Atlantis, 2008.
² For an interesting summary on how our brain actually handles multitasking, and how it affects children’s ability to learn, read this article by Nick Morrison: “The Myth of Multitasking and What it Means for Learning,” Forbes, November 26, 2014.
³ Larry Kim, “Multitasking is Killing Your Brain,” Inc. website.