DO THIS: Stop Multitasking (Pro Tip: there is no such thing)

multitask-image

My instant gratification monkey is great at telling me stories that make me feel good about doing shit that he wants to do, while my rational mind knows that shit stinks.  The best tool I have found to overcoming these feel good stories that support unwanted habits or behavior is the bright shiny sunlight of AWARENESS, DATA AND FACTS.  One such exercise is 15 Minutes of Honesty.  Today I have the mythbuster which destroys the “I am good at Multitasking” story, one of my monkey’s favorites:

1 Minute Proof that I suck at Multitasking.

For most of us, the rational mind has convinced the monkey that texting and driving sucks, but we continue to believe the monkey at work, with friends and around the house.  The monkey mind LOVES multitasking.  Jumping around between things feels like engagement.  Feels like a lot is getting done.  Many people and things need my attention. So many that I have to spread myself thin.  It makes me feel important, needed, worthwhile.  Multitasking implies that we are working on multiple tasks simultaneously and in total getting more done (says the monkey).  But the human brain isn’t able to focus on more than one thing at a time, so what are actually doing is RAPID TASK SWITCHING and the research shows a significant switching cost overhead associated with this process.  In some cases it can be 100% overhead meaning it takes TWICE as long to complete two tasks done with rapid switching instead of in serial (one at a time).

Okay, okay says my monkey, sure I hear you, but I don’t really believe you.   Those university studies are done on drugged up grad students (not smart monkeys like me), I am WAY more productive than them!  I am great at multitasking!

Okay Monkey, let’s put that to the test.

Grab a piece of blank paper, a pen and a stopwatch.  Your task is to draw two lines and write a sentence on one line and a series of numbers on the second line.  On the first line write “I am great at multitasking.”  On the second line write the numbers 1-20 in series.  The goal is to end up with one line with the sentence and one line with the number series.  But we are going to perform the tasks two different ways and time ourselves doing each method.

Method 1: Separate Task in Series:  First, do the tasks in Series, one after each other, focusing only on the immediate task at hand each time.  Draw the first line, write the sentence “I am great at multitasking”.  Draw the second line, write the numbers 1-20 in order.  Start the stopwatch when you begin and stop when finished.  Write down the time.

Method 2: Multitasking/Rapid task switching:  Switch between tasks as you are doing them.  Draw the first line.  Write “I”.  Draw the Second line.  Write “1”.  Go up to the first line, make a space, then write the letter “a”.  Down to the second line, write the number “2”.  Now back up to the first line, write the “m” of “am”.  Down to the second line for “3”… And so on until you have the two lines done.  Write down that time.

Here is my piece of paper from this morning.

Multi tasking exercise
Multi tasking exercise

Serial :24 seconds, Multi :50 seconds.  Oh, the monkey doesn’t like that.  The tasks are the same.  The time to compete 2X!  “I can do better” my monkey says.  So I do it 10 more times.  Trying every trick I can think of to improve the multitask scenario.  After 10 iterations, average time to complete:  Serial :22 seconds, Multi :50 seconds.  So I actually got better at doing the tasks in serial (practice), but the switching costs of multitasking kept my performance stuck.

Being a nerd, I dug a bit deeper.  What exactly is going on that causes 100% overhead during multitasking?  A few things I observed in this particular exercise include:

  1.  Physical movement between task space.  In serial, I write the sentence from left to right all at once, one letter next to the other.  In multi, I have to move the pen between the lines, find the correct place to put the letter or number, and start.  This movement time, while small, is probably about 80% of the time to even write one letter or number.  While the impact of physical movement in this particular exercise may be outsized versus other multitasking scenarios, the effect can still be significant.  Even moving the mouse to switch between applications, or navigate around your phone. In this exercise I estimate that Physical movement explains about 80% of the variance.
  2. Mental reset (reconfiguring your control settings).  Writing numbers and letters are different. Each time you switch you have to try to remember your place in the task, figure out what to do next, then do it.  That mental framing, “getting into the task” takes time.  For a simple task like this it was small, maybe 10% of the variance in this exercise, but in some tasks like writing a novel, it can be very large.
  3. Cognitive stress.  While the mind can’t focus on more than one thing at a time, having more than one thing pressing on you can cause the stress of the impending task to weigh on the current task.  I found this often in the exercise, writing a number and already thinking ahead to what letter I had to write next.  Thinking of task 1 during task 2 made task 2 take longer to complete.  In this exercise I estimate cognitive stress explains about 5% of the variance.
  4. Task volume explosion.  When doing the tasks in Series, you have basically four sub-tasks.  1. Draw a line.  2. Write a sentence.  3. Draw a line.  4. Write a series of numbers.  When done Multitasking, there are 44 sub-tasks (10x!).  Draw line (x2), Write Letter (x22), Write number (x20).  It takes more mental energy to check off 44 things than it does to check off 4 things.  In this exercise I estimate that Task Volume Explosion explains about 5% of the variance.

Ok, so exercise done, variance explained, Monkey convinced right?  Well I hope so, but this is one that keeps coming back like a bad penny.  Today I am aware, but then I get busy and the Monkey comes back with extra Trumpesk confidence “I am great at multitasking”.   So bookmark this post.  Whenever you hear the monkey’s story, redo the exercise.  Spend time on the analysis.  Let it sink in.  Eventually you may change the Monkey’s story.

Footnote:

Like how I used the Monkey’s own story to prove the absurdity of the story? Change the story, change yourself.  Remember the Monkey believes stories it believes/feels to be true.  The stories are in his(your) head due to some kind of confirmation or learning in the past.  At one time, the story may have even been correct or have served a valuable purpose.   Or it may have been implanted there falsely (say by a large conglomerate (Apple, Microsoft, Google, et al) trying to sell you productivity tools/technology) by advertising or media.

Here at DGC we like to practice contemplation and give you practical tools to analyze where you are in life and if it is all going the best it can for you.  A key tactic in this journey is to Know your Stories (the monkey’s and everyone else’s) and then ASK IF THOSE STORIES ARE STILL SERVING YOU on a regular basis.  Compare the Stories against the facts.  In the case of the “I am great at multitasking” story, a fairly simple one minute exercise lays bare the truth.  Many times it only takes changing one word in the story.  Repeat that story enough and it will become the Monkey’s story.  My truth about multitasking?  Say it with me:  “I suck at multitasking!”  Convince your monkey of this and productivity will skyrocket!

DO This: 15 Minutes of Honesty re: goals/action alignment

 

 

keep calm and achieve your goals

 

We all tell stories about ourselves.  One of mine is “my actions are very aligned with my goals and values.”  A smile and a burst of confidence appear every time this story passes through my neurons.  Sometimes, though, the red pill (reality) can slap that stupid grin right off my face.    This morning reality slapped me.  Hard.  Usually I just shrug it off and keep going.  Today I decided to learn something.

So, being a data nerd, I developed a quick honesty exercise which produces ONE actionable item with high probability of getting your goals/values/actions back into alignment.  Kind of like a Chiropractor for your brain.   Similar to the Recover Your Grit exercise, but this one is bite sized exercise and can be done in 15 minutes.

Backround:

My morning routine of work-out, meditation, morning pages, etc. usually takes about an hour and a half.  This morning it took 3 hours.  Yea, that is right, 50% dilly dallying.  Now I am not one of those “got to be productive 100% of the day” guys, but 50% waste is excessive by any measure.  Usually I tell myself I am too busy to do the analysis, the job is too big, not that much time was wasted, etc.  But do I really have a more important thing to do than figure out where 50% of my time went and how to get that time back (if I want to)?  So here is what I did:

The 15 minutes of Honesty in Actions Exercise:

When the red pill of reality slaps you in the face (“Oh shit, I think I just wasted a bunch of time!”), do this exercise immediately.  It works best if the period of time is less than a day.  Say a couple of hours, or even a whole work day.  But not more.  If the time interval is too large, you won’t remember enough details to be helpful.  Also you must do it immediately or your memory will start to re-write the facts and the analysis will be less truthful.

Take out a pad of paper.  Yes paper and pen.  Turn your phone off.  Walk away from the computer to a quiet place with a desk and a chair.  No technology to distract during the exercise.   Remember you only need 15 minutes then you can go back to being so busy you can’t take time to get less busy.:)

At the top of the first page, write the date and time period you want to analyze that just felt like it got hijacked.  For me a recent one was a three hour period from 6-9 am Monday Sept 26, 2016 at my house in Seattle Washington.  Name the primary activity that was supposed to be going on then.  For me, recently, it was my morning routine.  It could be a project you were supposed to be working on, time with the family, etc.  Underneath this heading, draw a horizontal line across the page and a line down the middle to separate the page into two columns.  On the top of the left column write “On Point Actions”, on the right write “Not On Point Actions”.  If you are feeling spunky (as I was) you can add to the right column “distractions/shiny objects” or any other colorful characterization of the things that tend to take you off task.

Now rewind your mind back to the beginning of the time period you are analyzing and roll forward minute by minute remembering everything you did.  Those things that were on point write in the left column and put the number of minutes you did each of them.  Those things that were off point write them in the right column with minutes associated with each of those.  Add up the minutes on the left and the right. They must total the interval you are analysing (in my case 3 hours).  If they don’t you are missing something, go back and add more actions or time to the actions you already have.  When I did this exercise, I need a second page for the shiny objects/distractions because there were so many of them.  Here are the pages from a recent exercise I did.

15 minutes of honesty page one
15 minutes of honesty page one

15 minutes of honesty page two
15 minutes of honesty page two
Often when writing down an action that I was doing, I realized that starting one action actually lead to other actions.  So for these items, I put an indentation below listing the follow on actions that happened because I started the primary action.  For example “read email” turned into “buy electric pulse exercise suit from Indiegogo for $1,450”, register for a conference, download some pictures, and unsubscribe from three newsletters.  While we all know that email can be a rathole, the depth and breadth of that rathole can be hidden until we actually do an exercise like this which catalogues exactly what happened in email. This exercise is very good to highlight how actions are linked together and which “master actions” like “email” and “check facebook” and “check stocks” and “check Instagram” can lead to much greater time diversions than your brain originally planned.

When you are finished and the minutes match on each column to the total time you are analysing, then summarize at the bottom of the page what happened.  Calculate the ratio of on point and off point time.  Add in any other consequences of the off point actions (like in my case money spent buying things that were not originally on my list at the beginning of the time).  My recent results were 1:35/1:25 and $1,550 unplanned spending.  47% not on point.  Now at the bottom of the page of the right column, make a list of the top 5 things that got you off point with the most number of minutes.  For me these were: check email, check facebook, check stocks, text people, mess around with apps on phone and daydream.  Now see if there is a common root cause, or enabling event/technology between any of these actions.   For me, 5 of the six were related to the iPhone.  So I grouped these and wrote “iPhone” next to that group.

So what is the #1 thing I can do to re-align my actions during the morning routine with my goals and make that time as much on-point as possible?  Turn off the damn iPhone during that time.  Nothing I normally do in the morning routine requires the phone (by design).  Now when you do the exercise you may have another action or enabling technology that distracts you.  Maybe the TV,  or other chores around the house, or children, or going shopping.  Whatever takes you off task.  The point here, is to sit down and make the list in excruciating detail.  Add up the minutes. Account for every one.  Note the other unintended actions ( money spent, etc.) Honesty and authenticity is the goal of this little red pill.  You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken.

Until I did this exercise, I had let my monkey mind convince me that having a phone always near by was productive and ultimately allowing me to get more done in the day.  But this exercise in honesty and drilling down to every minute laid bare the reality that much time was wasted chasing shiny things and doing non critical things.  Some of them I maybe would have done anyway, but the point is that I could always choose to do them later.  Allowing the monkey mind to indulge the shiny objects in the middle of other time which my goals say should be dedicated to another activity just made that activity longer and less productive.  In the end multitasking has often left me with a longer list of unfinished projects.  This exercise documents this in detail so that your monkey mind can not ignore the data any longer. You have the paper.  Your hand wrote the lists.  You have re-lived the diversions and productive time in detail. You truly understand the difference. Next time you conscious mind will have a reference point to make a more informed decision of whether to indulge the monkey mind or not.  You also have One concrete intervention (which you can use or not, up to you) which has a high probability of keeping the monkey mind at bay during time you want dedicated to on-point actions in support of goals.

Frequency:

I do this exercise whenever I have a flash of realization that I am off track with actions and goals.  I have done it three times in the last month.  Each time a different proximate cause and intervention has surfaced.

Science:

I created this exercise myself, so this specific technique has not been studied (as far as I know), but this is part of the quantified self, although most of that literature is around sensor data. Part of the “know thyself” world.  The more you are honest and authentic with yourself, the better able you are to get where you want to be in life.  This exercise is similar to some the work in Cognitive Behavior Therapy to discover automatic thoughts.  Much of that scholarly work is hoarded by the information bandits who hold our mental health hostage behind research grants funded by taxpayers, so we are left to figure out our own exercises.

This is a small, manageable way to get some insight.  And it is free from me to you.  There is no downside.