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!


Also published on Medium.

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