Multitasking: When Several Things Can Go Wrong at the Same Time…

…This is your brain multitasking.

A study by Zhen Wang and Clifford Nass from Stanford University, analyzes what happens in a brain while a person is multitasking. Multitasking, at first sight, looks very productive and seems the best way to solve several problems at the same time. However, the study shows just the opposite:

  •  Students who engaged heavily in multitasking activities reported feeling great, but their test results were much worse than those of people who weren’t multitasking.
  • The daily output of multitaskers decreased.

What is Going on In our Brains When we Multitask?

The study concludes that our brains can’t actually multitask at all. Multitasking splits the brain, creating what researchers have called “spotlights.” The brain is just frantically switching between activities. The image below shows the different brain activities for various tasks that the brain switches between. It simply jumps back and forth as you focus on each task for a few seconds at a time:

Stanford researcher Clifford Nass wondered whether those who multitask heavily develop outstanding skills in: filtering information; switching more quickly between tasks; or improving their memories. The results?

We were absolutely shocked. We all lost our bets. It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.

People who multitask a lot are in fact a lot worse at filtering irrelevant information and perform significantly worse at switching between task, compared to singletaskers. Another problem is that by multitasking, we unknowingly we put a lot of pressure onto ourselves to juggle more and more tasks.

Lindsey Pollak, author of Getting from College to Career  warns that dividing your attention among multiple things may prevent you from allocating the time and attention that is necessary to do an excellent job, and can make you more susceptible to errors.  She points out that it also consumes more time and energy than one might think. Pollak says that while people believe it’s more important to be able multitask than to unitask,

they are equally significant. It’s absolutely important to know how to unitask because some projects and decisions require deep, uninterrupted thought. If you can’t do that, you might make an okay decision or do an okay job. But if you can really focus on one thing, you’re more likely to do really well.

Becoming a Proficient Serial Unitasker

While multitasking is unavoidable, when you have to engage in an important conversation, make a major decision or a complex project, you’ll need to be able to effectively focus exclusively on that one task – “unitask.”

Teri Hockett, chief executive of What’s For Work?, a career site for women emphasizes that undivided focus and energy leads to the best possible solution to any given problem:

When a project reaches a critical phase, or a deadline must be met, where nothing else matters but the task at hand, I want to be surrounded by people who recognize and understand that their complete attention—or unitasking—is of utmost importance.

10 Tips for Effective Unitasking

Jacquelyn Smith of Forbes, in her article Quit Multitasking: How To Unitask And Get More Done provides some solutions that can help you to become a more proficient unitasker:

See: In Pictures: How to Unitask at Work

This lists Ms. Smith’s recommendations along with a few others:

  1. Eliminate any outside distractions – just as when you are driving and need to focus on directions, you turn down the radio, you need to eliminate workplace distractions.
  2. Schedule time to unitask. If you know you have an important project or a big decision, schedule exclusive time to devote all of your attention to that one task.
  3. Allocate a specific amount of time.  When people first take up meditation, they often become frustrated that they can’t still the mind and focus their concentration for very long. Meditation teachers often recommend that you schedule just a short set  amount of time, like 10 minutes. Ms. Pollak says: “it might make it less scary.”
  4. Choose the right time of day to unitask. Pick a time when you’ll have the fewest distractions, or work on it over the weekend. “Sometimes you can accomplish a task that might take you the entire workday to do, in an hour on a Sunday,” Ms. Pollak says.
  5. Close your door or post a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign or status on instant messager, send out an e-mail, or verbally inform business partners when you need to make yourself unavailable. Just don’t do this too frequently so as not to appear isolated or unresponsive.
  6. Consider finding an alternative work space – If your workplace in noisy and filled with distractions, and the task doesn’t require you to be online, go to a library or private place where you can focus with fewer distractions, so you’ll be less tempted to go online and be distracted by things like Facebook or e-mail.
  7. Clear your desk. If it’s messy and you happen to catch a glimpse of some paperwork or a post-it note with a reminder, you might be tempted to focus some of your attention on those things, as well.
  8. Disconnect. Turn off e-mail, phones, instant messager, etc. for a period that you’re unitasking. If you can’t disconnect completely, silence your devices and disable notifications. You can also set your phone to go directly to voicemail or set up an auto-reply on your e-mail to let people know when you’ll be available again, and how they can reach you or a colleague in the case of an emergency.
  9. Face a wall – If you are on an important call or need to clear your head, turn your chair around to face a wall or the door.
  10. One conscious breath – A technique that stems from ancient meditation practice is to direct your attention to your breath. Don’t try to slow or change your normal breathing pattern; just become consciously aware of it.

Whistle While You Work: Listening to Music Isn’t Multitasking

Stanford Professor Clifford Nass mentions:

In the case of music, it’s a little different. We have a special part of our brain for music, so we can listen to music while we do other things.

It may not always work, but quiet music may calm your mind and help you focus.

3 Techniques for Gen Y

Unitasking may be particularly difficult for the Millennial Generation  of Buffer offeres some suggestions that helped him develop a “singletasking workflow online:”

I would have 2 separate email inboxes open, TweetDeck at the same time, as well as Facebook and an instant messaging tool…I felt very much on top of things, hitting “command + tab” all the time to check if I missed anything in one of the windows. With every tab switch it felt as my head would get bigger, whilst I would get less and less done at the same time. Both my brain and my work was rather scattered…To solve my multitasking madness, there were in fact 3 key changes I made to develop a full-on single tasking focus:

  1. The single browser tab habit – I would limit myself to only keep 1 browser tab open whenever I am working. That way I had to really prioritize what the most important task was that I had to work on…Some key tasks I am juggling are email support via our HelpScout inbox, Tweets for our @bufferapp account, blogposts…and emails from my personal inbox…Now I work through them one by one. Only my HelpScout inbox is open. Then only TweetDeck is open to reply to any Tweets. Then I move on to close everything and only open Word to start writing. And finally I move to my personal email inbox, closing everything else again.
  2. The evening planning routine – Every evening, I would sit down and jot down what I would want to get done the next day…There was only a slight problem with to do lists. I wouldn’t stick to them. So I added a twist to it. Besides jotting down what I wanted to do, I would add a brief brainstorm with Joel. Doing this seemed like a small change, but made a huge difference. When we sat down for just 10 minutes every evening, to briefly walk through the tasks of the next day, everything changed in terms of productivity. The reason was that instead of just writing tasks down, I was forced to also think through the tasks and explain them to Joel. If you keep a to do list, but rarely stick to it, try the same and find a colleague, spouse or friend to brainstorm 10 minutes every evening. You can do this for each other and frankly, it becomes a lot of fun to meet up for this quick brainstorm every day.
  3. Change work location at least once a day –To regain focus after finishing one task and moving on to the next one, just spending 5 minutes as a break, getting a drink or similar didn’t work. Nor did closing the laptop for 5 minutes or standing up from my desk. I had to physically move from one place to another.So most times, I work out of my apartment for the first half of the day, then I have a list of coffeeshops I can go to, or the lounge area in our apartment building.