How To ‘Multitask’ Effectively: Avoiding the Task-Switching Penalty

Multitasking is a weakness, not a strength.

The evidence is in: multitasking is impossible.

What we thinking of as multitasking – performing multiple activities at the same time – is actually just moving quickly from one activity to the next, never fully engaging in any particular one.

Research shows that there are dire consequences of constantly switching from task to task:

  • A study at the University of London found that we lose as many as 10 IQ points when trying to multitask.
  • Research conducted at Stanford found that multitasking is less productive than doing a single thing at a time. The researchers also found that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information cannot pay attention, recall information, or switch from one job to another as well as those who complete one task at a time.
  • Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics sciences at UC Irvine, found that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task.

The list goes on.

So, if multitasking is a myth, then what’s really happening when we [try to] multitask?

I Got 99 Problems, and They’re All Multitasking

The trouble is that multitasking is enjoyable. When you give in to the urge to switch tasks, your brain is rewarded with a small shot of dopamine.

We are curious animals. Who knows what that next email, tweet or text message holds in store? The simple act of finding out provides immediate gratification. In contrast, resisting distraction and staying on-task requires self-discipline and mental effort.

And yet each time we shift our focus, it’s as if we’re taking a trip to the store. More recently this has been dubbed the “cognitive task-shifting penalty.” We pay a mental tax that diminishes our ability to produce high-level work.

This tax is levied in two ways: 1) costing us time and 2) costing us energy.

When our productivity goes down, we make less money and have less energy. In this way, multitasking creates a vicious downward cycle of money and time suck.

How Multitasking Wastes Time

An easy way conceptualize multitasking is by thinking of the brain like a computer. Setting aside where or not this metaphor holds true, it’s useful as an analogy here.

In a computer, memory is allocated for specific tasks.

Suppose you want to perform two distinct tasks: Task A and Task B. It takes the computer 10 seconds to complete each task.

Given the option to multitask or not, the computer could complete the tasks in one of two ways.

Sequentially (ie, A then B), like this:multitasking sequential process

…or “simultaneously” (ie, mulitasking – splitting them up), like this:

multitasking format

In this example, each block takes 1 second to compute. Which approach is ideal?

In both scenarios, you would have to wait the full 20 seconds for Task B to finish. Many people would see this and say, multitasking is ideal. But is it really?

If you computed sequentially, each task takes 10 seconds to complete. But if completed using the multitasking approach, Task A doesn’t actually complete until the 19 second mark.

When completed sequentially, the tasks take a much shorter time to complete on average (15 seconds versus 19.5). Already multitasking is showing its weakness. But let’s see how this plays out in reality.

In the real world, computers don’t switch tasks immediately – it takes a small amount of time to move from one task to the next. This time – which we’ll call “resumption time” – adds up quickly. Each task switch might waste only 1/10th of a second, but if switching too often can kill productivity by as much as 40%.

Unlike computers, our brains do not switch tasks so quickly. Every time you switch your attention from one subject to another, you incur the Cognitive Switching Penalty. Your brain spends time and energy thrashing, loading and reloading contexts.

Research shows that it takes anywhere from 3 to 25 minutes to resume a task to the point where it was before an interruption and as much as 3 weeks for large group projects.

What’s worse is that you’re more likely to make errors when switching than when doing tasks sequentially. The more complex the tasks, the higher the time and error penalties.

Even when the task switch is scheduled ahead of time, allowing us to mentally prepare for it, we’re slower to switch contexts and refocus on the task at hand. (Note: this slightly reduces the resumption time but makes us feel more stressed as a consequence).

Yikes.

So multitasking wastes a lot of time. We are slower to complete “multi-tasks” than tasks we focus on one at a time.

But that’s not all; multitasking is more insidious than that.

Lost time is easy to track. In contrast, it’s difficult to quantify lost energy.

How Multitasking Wastes Energy (Willpower)

We’ve looked at the effects of task switching on resumption time, and how this lowers productivity in the form of slower work.

Multitasking (compared to sequential work) also increases the energy required to complete a given unit of work.

It does this in two ways.

First, task-switching limits our capacity to filter the important from the inconsequential. Important stuff becomes irrelevant and just as important as everything else.

When we switch and between tasks, attention is given to everything rather than focusing on the most important details that will actually help us reach our goals.

Second, task-switching makes us more impulsive (itself an impulsive behavior).

In the brain, task-switching (loading different contexts, ie mental RAM) is managed by what are known as mental executive functions. These executive functions control and manage other cognitive processes and determine how, when and in what order certain tasks are performed.

According to researchers Meyer, Evans and Rubinstein, there are two stages to the executive control process.

  1. Stage one is Goal Shifting: deciding to do one thing instead of another.
  2. Stage two is Role Activation: changing from the rules for the previous task to rules for the new task.

When we shift goals or activate roles, our burns willpower, a limited resource. Willpower, as we know, depletes over the course of the day.

Task switching involves several parts of your brain: one of which is the pre-frontal cortex, the region involved in shifting and focusing your attention, and selecting which task to do when.

The pre-frontal cortex is also responsible for self-control:

If an individual has the choice between an immediate reward or a more valuable reward which they can receive later, an individual would most likely try to control the impulse to take that immediate reward.

Constantly switching tasks puts extra strain on the pre-frontal cortex, and as a consequence, we’re more likely to give in to impulses. Resisting impulses takes energy.

As management consultant Ron Friedman put it, this is “the cognitive equivalent of dieting in a pastry shop. We can all muster the willpower to resist the temptations, but doing so comes with considerable costs to our limited supply of willpower.”

So where does that leave us? If multi-tasking is actually hurting productivity, rather than helping, how do we deal with the endless distractions at work and online?

Solutions

1) Focus On Your Most Important Tasks (MIT)

What are your big hairy audacious goals? The one’s that take the extra long-term view. Do those first thing in the morning when your creative energy is at its peak.

Further, focus on the 20% of tasks that bring 80% of the results. Don’t mistake being busy for being productive. The more stressed and anxious we are at work, the more likely we will busily multitask and, as we’ve seen, accomplish less.

One of the reasons that we give in to multi-tasking is that we feel more and more anxious as the day goes on that we have not accomplished what we wanted to, or what was important to us.

So identify at the start of each day (or better yet, at the end of the day before) one or two really important things that you want to accomplish during that one day. Make it part of your daily ritual. Then do those tasks first.

The sense of relief and accomplishment is immense, and you will find that you are more relaxed as the day goes on. You will not feel the anxious drive to do more and more and more, and it will be easier to resist multi-tasking.

2) Be Ruthless About Process Isolation

Be around other people who are as focused as you, or cut them out of your life entirely. You may feel like an asshole when you do this, but it’s essential to being focused and productive.

Block off time religiously. Create physical barriers against interruptions.

Change environments to move temptation further away: Go to a coffee shop where no one will find you. Put a sign on your door that says DO NOT DISTURB. Whatever it takes, make sure people know you are busy and not to be bothered.

Shut down your email program and silence your phone. It’s a lot easier to stay on task when you’re not continuously fending off those curious urges. This approach doesn’t require going off the grid for a full day. Even as little as 30 minutes can have a major impact on your productivity.

Process isolation may mean seriously isolating yourself from others. Take some time to unplug; get off the grid. Doing so gives your brain the peace and quiet to actually think about stuff beyond a surface level. After unplugging, you may notice that you naturally work sequentially, doing just one task at a time.

3) Batching Work

Batch time to immerse yourself in working spheres – chunks of time and attention dedicated to thematically related work. Set aside time where you will be working on just one task. Nothing else. By making the choice to do so, you will be better prepared to deal with interruptions when they arise.

Batching reduces the willpower required to shift goals (one of the two types of task-switching). If work is thematically related, it’s seamless transition to new tasks because they move you toward a common goal. That way your brain needs to load the context into working memory only once. You’ll get more done with less effort.

Another worthwhile approach is to cluster similar activities together, keeping ramp-up time to a minimum. Instead of scattering phone calls, meetings, administrative work, and emails throughout your day, try grouping related tasks so that there are fewer transitions.

Read reports, memos and articles one after another. Schedule meetings back-to-back. Keep a list of administrative tasks and do them all in a single weekly session. If possible, try limiting email to 2 or 3 predetermined times—for example 8:30 and 4:30—instead of responding to them the moment they arrive.

4) Goal Alignment

Have you ever been really inspired, set lofty goals, then not followed through? Everyone has.

I used to react negatively to this approach, getting down on myself for not living up to my goals. But that only set me back further from my goals.

I found that, rather than try to always be my best self, accepting that I would have moments of weakness allowed me to align those moments with my longer-term goals.

Take, for example, going to the gym. There are a lot of reasons why people go to the gym. Some people do it to look better and thus get the approval of others, some people do it to stay healthy, others do it to have better sex, and some people do it to be a good role model/parent/friend. Whatever the reason, we all have at least one.

Yet, these goals seem to be at odds: seeking others’ approval is a bit selfish, whereas being a good role model for your family is definitely not. They don’t align.

One way to handle this disconnect would be to think, Gee, I’m not a good person because wanting to look good is selfish. A better approach would be to embrace the fact that we all have different desires, some ‘nobler’ and some based in lower levels of consciousness, and that’s okay – in fact, normal.

By aligning these desires towards a common goal, we’re able to remove the internal conflict that comes with competing desires. We can take on a larger circle of concerns, knowing that we have different types of motivation at different times, and each of them are valuable motivators that move us toward our goals.

A lot of people are tortured because they can’t sort out their motivation, or they feel like they don’t have enough motivation for different goals. But to align goals, we need to figure out who we are, what we want out of life, and why we want it. We need to accept that we oscillate in and out of different frames of mind (re: contexts) and have different personalities, all of which shift based on the environment we’re in at any given time.

Further, by aligning our goals we again reduce the goal shifting penalty because our brain recognizes, Aha! At least we’re on the right track. 

5) Make Room for Silence

When we’re creative, it’s our pre-frontal cortex that connects ideas and makes associations. The problem, as we’ve seen, is that the pre-frontal cortex can only focus on one or two things at a time.

When you inevitably multitask, you levy that mental tax on your pre-frontal cortex. This makes it difficult to solve problems and make creative association if your pre-frontal cortex doesn’t have some quiet time to see the bigger picture and integrate different pieces of information.

Though it seems paradoxical, when we STOP thinking about an idea or problem, our brain actually has a better chance of solving it.

This means you have to make time for silence in your day. You need to have time in your day when you are doing “nothing” as far as your brain is concerned.

Not talking, not reading, not writing. You can go for a walk, get exercise, listen to music, or stare into space.

The more silence the more work you will get done. Multi-tasking is the enemy of silence.

6) Build Task-Switching Habits

This is an idea that I’m constantly working on in my own life. In order to truly do great work, we have to immerse ourselves in the work. To attain that level of focus is precisely why multitasking is like death, the destroyer of productivity.

The problem is, when you truly lose yourself in your work, it can be difficult to pull yourself out and do basic things like say, socialize and be friendly to other people. How do you accomplish both?

The key is to build habits that help your brain switch contexts. Here are a few context-switching habits that work very well for me:

  • In the morning, I go for a walk, do breathing exercises, and listen to inspiration speeches to get me in the right mindset before work.
  • When I’m working, I actively take breaks (usually on a Pomodoro timer routine). When taking breaks, I force myself to consciously look at the world around me.
  • When getting ready for the gym, I start listening to workout music beforehand. When I get to the gym, I have a stretch routine. Both of these habits force me out of my head and into my body, which helps me lift more weight and focus better while working out.
  • When I go out with friends at night, I make a habit of talking to absolutely everyone. The 7/11 cashier, the cab driver, the bouncer, the waiter, the bartender and everyone I see. It helps me loosen up and get into a social frame of mind. This is much healthier (and cheaper) than checking facebook all night, getting to the bar, and ordering a few beers.

All of these activities trigger the habits that I want: working hard, getting into a flow state while I work, hitting the gym hard, and being very social when I’m out. Without the triggers, it would be almost impossible to build the habits (I’ve tried).

The trigger leads to the habit which leads to the ultimate rewards of the behavior: making more money, feeling refreshed, being healthy and looking good, and having more friends.

Full Circle

If you made it this far without checking Facebook, I’m amazed. Count yourself among the 1% most-focused internet users.

We’ve seen how multitasking makes us stupid, lowers our productivity, and makes us more stressed. In contrast, focusing on just one task at a time makes us feel good, accomplished, and increases our productivity – but it’s not easy.

There are a few simple hacks we can employ to avoid multitasking.

Probably the most important is to create physical barriers between yourself, other people, and technology. Set up a workspace that is interruption-proof and you’ll be amazed at how much more productive you are throughout the day.

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  • Event Maxima

    This is a very good article on multi tasking and avoiding & avoiding task-switching penalty. I like this article very much. We have a workshop of time management, work life balance, multitasking in Mumbai. So if anybody has interest to join in this workshop, please contact us on – http://www.eventmaxima.com/Events/EventDetails/160141/performanceacceleratorworkshop

  • John Macdonald

    Hey dan…Love this! Especially the analogy to computer architecture…a subject right my alley.