We live in an age where we are expected to be turned on 24/7; always be accessible. We try to counteract this constant demand for our time, with multitasking – juggling between tasks while hustling to meet deadlines. These unreasonable demands are sometimes placed on us by our jobs, our personal lives and our relationships. When we are unable to meet all of the demands, we become frustrated or even berate ourselves. This leads to self-doubt, and feelings that we are not good enough. Something must be wrong with us for not being able to multitask better, right? Wrong!
Personally I have never been good at multitasking. I thought something was wrong with me for not being able to multitask. When I saw others juggling multiple things at once thoughts of, “wow they are so productive and I am so unproductive”, would gnaw at me. I felt badly for being slower, for needing to concentrate more, for not seemingly doing more.
But, is multitasking really productive though? Can we really perform more than one task at a time and give each of them our best performance?
How Our Brains Really Work
Our brains lack the ability to perform two or more tasks at the same time. “We have a hard time multitasking because of the ways that our building blocks of attention and executive control inherently work”, this is according to Kevin P. Madore, Ph.D. and Anthony D. Wagner, Ph.D. Check out the article Multicosts of Multitasking published in the online journal, Cerebrum.
Think of a CEO who coordinates a company’s activities. Similarly, “executive processes” are the CEO of our brains. They organize our mental lives. These are processes that control the operation of other processes. They are responsible for the coordination of mental activity so that a particular goal is achieved.
Say for example, you are sitting at your desk working on a report and you receive an email notification. You turn from the process of working on the report, to the process of reading and responding to the email. ‘Switching attention’, is considered an executive process because it organizes the activities of, working on your report, reading the email and responding to the email.
Therefore, when we attempt to multitask we are not actually doing two tasks at once. What we are actually doing is switching between tasks. There is also a cost involved in doing this. It is referred to as a ‘switch cost’. This is a reduction in performance accuracy or speed that results from shifting between tasks.
The Cost of Switching
To learn more about ‘switch cost’, I turned to the article Multitasking: Switching Costs, found on the American Psychological Association’s website.
Our brain’s ‘executive processes’, have two stages, which help us to switch between tasks. One stage is called ‘goal shifting’ (“I want to do this now instead of that”) and the other stage is called, ‘rule activation’ (“I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this”).
‘Switch costs’ may take only a fraction of a second. But when done repeatedly, they add up to a lot. Researchers found that shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time. Not only does switching cost us more time, but it also increases the risk of error.
Instead of multitasking, what I believe we should be striving for is ‘deep work’. Multitasking, (which we now understand is a myth) in my view is directly opposed to ‘deep work’. By continuously multitasking we are engaging in shallow work and will not reach the level of ‘deep work’ needed to be productive.
The concept of ‘deep work’ was coined by Cal Newport, an author and computer science professor at Georgetown University. It is defined as “professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push cognitive capabilities to their limit”. It encourages the creation of added value and improved skill. Its opposite, ‘shallow work’ is defined as “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted.” You can check out this article for a complete guide to deep work, which include choosing one of 4 deep work scheduling strategies and building a deep work routine.
Find Your Flow
When last have you been so involved in an activity that nothing else seemed to matter or you completely lost track of time? If you have felt like this, then you were in what is referred to as flow state.
“I just can’t seem to find my flow.” Have you ever heard anyone use that remark? Personally, I have said this countless times. For me finding my flow represents that sweet spot in my work, where I am completely engrossed. I am not yielding to distractions, I feel a sense of excitement and enjoyment in what I am doing, and a sense of accomplishment when I am finished. For various reasons, I do not reach this place as often as I would like. But when I do, I feel blissful.
In his book Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, Hector Garcia, explains that a clear objective and focus on process leads to flow.
He outlines 7 conditions for achieving flow:
- Knowing what to do
- Knowing how to do it
- Knowing how well you are doing
- Knowing where to go
- Perceiving challenges
- Perceiving skills
- Being free from distractions
Concentration, Deep Work and Flow
As you can tell, deep work and flow state are similar concepts. They both involve being able to concentrate and work for a significant amount of time on a single task, free of distractions.
Some benefits of concentration include:
- Being more likely to find your flow
- Increase in productivity and retention
- Less likely to make mistakes
- Feeling calm and in control of the task at hand
- Increased creativity
- Being more considerate, as we pay more attention to those around us
The next time you are tempted to make an attempt at multitasking, remind yourself that this concept is merely a myth. Instead, strive for reaching your flow, while engaging in deep work. This will help you to complete your task quicker, than if you were attempting multiple tasks at once. At the end of the day you will find that you were in fact, able to minimize mistakes and be more productive. Finally, it is better to perform well at just a few tasks, than to perform inadequately on multiple tasks.
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Until next time…
~ Namaste 🙏