One day, I was multitasking in the kitchen. I had two meals on the fire and my phone in my hand. As I was stirring the pot, I was typing an email response. During this, I feel a tug of my shirt. “Yes,” I answered my 4-year-old daughter. “Can I ask you something?” “Of course,” I said while continuing to stir the pot and replying to that email. After a few seconds, she said, “Okay?” I said, “Okay!” and she left. A few minutes later, I heard a scream and water splashing. I rushed to the bathroom and shouted, “What did you do?” The bathroom floor was covered with water. “But,” she said with scared eyes, “you said it’s okay to give my bear a bath.” The truth is, I never heard the question. I was multitasking.
What Is Multitasking?
As the name suggests, multitasking is a process in which a person performs more than one task simultaneously. Now, true multitasking is rare in the day-to-day, unless you are a professional circus performer. Because we have only two hands, two eyes, and one mouth, rarely can we genuinely do multiple things at once, at least not outside of the said circus.
Therefore, in a more traditional context, multitasking is dividing your attention between many tasks at the same time or quickly flipping your focus between them.
There’s one type of multitasking that almost everybody does, and that’s driving and something. You drive your car while listening to music or an audiobook, or you have a conversation with someone in the passenger seat.
You don’t think about that as multitasking, but to keep the train of thought in a conversation or keep up with the plot of an audiobook, at least a part of your brain must focus on that information.
While that part of the brain pays attention to that, there’s less concentration left for your brain to watch the road and observe everything happening on the street at that moment. Depending on the level of focus that the non-driving task requires, you might be in danger of a crash; but if the other task is not that taxing on your focus, you’ll make it to your destination safely.
Therefore multitasking often involves one main task, which gets interrupted in bursts by other independent or related tasks.
Here’s an example: you work on a project at your desk involving a complicated Excel spreadsheet that would take you about two hours to complete. Your email is open on the other screen, and every time a new email pops up, you take ten to thirty seconds to answer it.
That qualifies as multitasking because you are trying to accomplish more than one thing at the same time. Yes, you’ll have no open emails at the end of your project, but is that a good thing?
How Did The Multitasking Craze Start?
The concept of multitasking did not exist until the mid-60s, although people were still doing it even before that. IBM coined the term in 1965 in a report that described the capabilities of their latest computing machine.
The idea of computers helping us do more things faster only accelerated from that point on.
I don’t know if you recall, but back in the 80s, computers were only running on one screen in text mode. In 1985, Microsoft introduced Windows 1.0, which changed everything. From that moment on, you could have multiple windows on your screen doing different things simultaneously.
Computer multitasking started to force people to multitask. Now you can have that addictive Minesweeper game to your left and your word processor to the right, and you could switch between them at any time.
As computers got better, the corporate world started to use the term to define the highest peak of efficiency. In an article for The New Atlantis, Christine Rosen writes about how in the late 90s and early 2000s, the “advertisements started celebrating the use of technology for doing a lot of things at once.” Suddenly, multitasking was a desired skill, something you’d put on your resume with pride and joy.
“Ability to multitask effectively and complete tasks timely under pressure.”
The assumption was that the workplace is a terrible fire pit where only the fierce can survive, and multitasking was the weapon of choice or the preferred saving grace.
The more you can do, the better you are, and that’ll put you ahead of the pack.
Something that computers were supposed to do to help our lives morphed into something we’d have to be so we could get hired. We need to prove that we can be “efficient,” “task-oriented,” “methodical,” “fast processing,” and so on. The corporate world needed us to become an extension of our computers and our brains to advance at the same pace as those devices.
It didn’t take very long (if you consider twenty years not long) to realize that this is a problem. A huge problem.
Why Multitasking Is Killing Productivity
As I said above, your brain can only focus on one thing at one time. You cannot divide your conscious concentration because to have a contiguous thought, you need to keep those “pieces” together.
A computer program can execute one line or group of lines of code, then pause that thread, and run a different group of instructions in a separate thread. Once the system finishes cycling through all other seemingly simultaneous threads, it returns to the beginning and continues the cycle. The memory, the progress, and everything else in that thread can proceed as though there had been no interruption.
Everything is boxed in and maintained as each thread is paused as if in suspended animation. The cycles happen so fast that it almost seems as though they all execute at the same time. But, even computers do things in order, but speed creates the appearance of simultaneous execution.
For you, as a human, although your brain is capable of multitasking, your ability to reconnect to the thought you interrupted doesn’t work the same way as it does for a computer.
You can clearly see that happening when you are in the middle of a conversation and your phone rings. You answer and exchange a few words, then you turn back to the discussion and go, “what were we talking about?” For a few moments, you cannot remember where you were; you’ve lost the context.
That’s a great example of how multithreading doesn’t work for our brains in the same way it does for computers.
The example above is quite apparent, and everyone has experienced something similar at least once. But the obviousness of that hides the elusiveness of other situations that are not as straightforward.
Even if you don’t completely lose your train of thought when you interrupt it with something else, there’s still a lag, a brief moment that you need to re-concentrate to get back to the original task.
That’s even worse if you have a series of these situations. You work on a document, which you interrupt with an email that you decide to answer, which you interrupt with a phone call, and so on.
Those series of focus changes add a lag during which your brain must refocus. During that refocus phase, it needs to purposely remove the thoughts related to the other tasks and get back to the first one.
That process is what kills your productivity.
If you were to separate the tasks and give each one full attention from beginning to end, take a short break between them and then switch, your productivity would be way superior, and the quality of the output would be much better, too.
How To Prevent Multitasking?
In today’s world, it isn’t easy to avoid multitasking. It’s even worse than you think because we constantly operate across different areas of life and multiple contexts, which takes our brain out of the groove even more significantly.
So, it’s one thing to multitask over different tasks at work, but way worse when you multitask there and have parts of your brain think about your family, friends, personal hobbies, etc. It’s the proverbial super-mom who’s talking on the phone with work while stirring a pot of food and listening to her child with one ear as she’s telling her a story from school.
However, in that madness, you can employ a few tactics to reduce the possibility of multitasking. You won’t get rid of it entirely, but the more you put hurdles in its way, the more it will cease to appear constantly.
Eventually, you’ll be able to replace multitasking with a better process, as we’ll see in the following section.
Plan your day
One of the reasons why multitasking occurs is the eagerness to do too many things simultaneously and, more often than not, because of items that have become urgent because they were left hanging for too long untouched.
When you plan your day ahead of time and create a structure to your hours, you eliminate the need to multitask because you already schedule your tasks one after the other in their order of priority.
Of course, there will be sudden interruptions from unexpected situations, but you can address them separately as they come. The most important thing is to first add a structure to your day based on importance and priority.
If you take the guesswork out of it, you’ll be much less likely to fall into multitasking just so that you feel like you’re busy and productive.
It’s not enough to structure your day; you must also ensure first things are first (shoutout to Dr. Stephen Covey!). Another reason multitasking happens is when an important project becomes urgent because it has been left undone for too long. For instance, if you have something due on Monday and still need to work for one hour on it, schedule it in your plan at 9 am or as early as possible. In this way, you won’t have a situation where it’s 4 pm, and now you’re crunched for time because you have three other projects that also need work.
Organizing your priorities is a critical step in addressing the essential things first, so you won’t even get to the need to multitask.
Some projects require deep concentration and a specific environment. Different people work best in different situations. Some like quiet rooms, others prefer the noise. Some like music, while others enjoy nature sounds. Whatever it is, when you work on a project that requires that kind of commitment, make sure you isolate yourself.
By that, I mean:
- mark your calendar as busy, so nobody schedules anything for you.
- put your chat app on “do not disturb.”
- turn off your phone
- close your door
- put headphones on to signal you won’t hear people
Do whatever you need to do to isolate yourself from the world so that you can give the task at hand the maximum of your attention space.
Even when a project doesn’t require your utmost concentration (not all should!), you must prevent multitasking by eliminating disruptions. The primary things that act as disruptors everywhere and for everyone are:
- social media
Depending on the kind of work that you do, it might not be feasible to turn off your phone. But if you can, allow calls to go to your voicemail and return those calls during your “phone time.”
The same goes for emails and chat.
If you leave the door open for disruptions, disruptions will appear. People will fill your space if you leave it open. Email requests, chat questions, and “quick” phone calls will add new tasks to your day. More often than not, you’ll want to address those quickly to get them out of the way.
Also, because you got interrupted, it seems as though these new tasks are more critical, especially since someone is now waiting for them.
So, you interrupt your current work and switch to the new, more exciting one.
To prevent this from happening, remove those disruptions or put blocks in their way.
If you can’t do that because of the nature of the job, practice pushing back and asking people to call you back during your specific window when you’ve planned your distractions.
At least push back until the time when you’ve completed the current task. Don’t even allow people to tell you what the new job is; that’s already a disruption. If they insist, ask them to send you an email which you can read on your own time.
In other words, push back. Learn how to say no.
Add Short Breaks
A lot of time, the line between projects gets muddled. You finish one thing and jump to the next one right away. Your brain, however, needs a little space to disconnect from one and get ready for the other.
So, put a little break between them. That allows your brain to exit the mood of the first task and transition to the next one.
Short breaks are great ways to improve productivity. You may think that a five-minute break five times a day is killing twenty-five minutes of your productivity, but, in reality, you will be more productive during the rest of the time than if you had no breaks.
Alternatives Processes To Multitasking
There will be some times in your life when you’ll have to multitask, and you can’t indeed prevent it in every situation. But there’s a massive difference between that kind of predicament and having multitasking as your primary system or process. It might seem like a good idea for short periods, and it might even work for you, but your overall productivity will suffer over time.
The more you do it, the less effective you’ll be, and the problem is that your busyness won’t even allow you to observe that phenomenon, regardless of how great your self-awareness is.
Instead of going through that, try your best to categorize your work and all other activities in ways in which you can be hyperfocused on one task at one time.
If you make that your habit, soon, you’ll see significant spikes in your productivity and a lowering of your overall level of stress. I’d say we all need a little bit of both!
Other Resources on Multitasking
How (and Why) to Stop Multitasking
7 Reasons You Should Stop Multitasking & Actually Get Things Done
Become a human again — III: Stop multitasking your brain, be focused.
How To Get Out Of The Bad Habit Of Multitasking
Now, before you go, I have…
3 Questions For You
- Are you a serial multi-tasker? If so, how does it help you?
- Do you find yourself often losing focus on the task at hand due to distractions?
- What are some methods you use in your day to day to ensure you focus on one task at a time?
Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!
Hi there! I’m Iulian, and I want to thank you for reading my article. There’s a lot more if you stick around. I write about personal development, productivity, fiction writing, and more. Also, I’ve created Self-Growth Journey, a free program that helps you get unstuck and create the beautiful life you deserve. Enjoy!