Cognitive neuroscientists and psychologists over the world have repeatedly proven that multitasking skills are based on a myth.
There are about 2.5% of people, according to a test done by David Strayer and Jason Watson from the University of Utah and the University of Denver at Colorado, that are, indeed, “supertaskers.”
The rest of us are in the majority; we are of the 97.5% of folks that need to accept that our performance will be better when we focus on one task at a time, or what other researchers have called “switch-tasking.”
Basically, multitasking skills aren’t actually as real as we thought, and when they are real, it’s rare that those skills exist in everyday people. These skills, when they do exist in someone, makes them a “supertasker.”
You may have been told that many women have the ability to multitask because we handle multiple tasks at the same time. We think to set the laundry before putting the casserole in the oven since both will take about the same amount of time to finish. Due to the magic of having two tasks completed in the same allotment of time, we have been dubbed with a talent that doesn’t actually exist.
But just because we thought to do those two things above, and write an article while backing up client work on redundant servers and updating two laptop computers for new staff to pick up tomorrow, is this a good idea for the human brain?
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Are Multitasking Skills Even Special?
Science seems to keep saying no or only for a very special few. However, it’s easy to see why we’ve adopted such a mistaken name for getting lots of different things finished in the same amount of time, and why it has made some people feel special.
But look a little more closely at what is really happening with the work at home, freelancing, multitasking phenom of a person that thinks to get all these items checked off his/her list in roughly the same two hours through effective multitasking.
Let’s compare them to the person who decides that they will only focus on writing the article for two hours and leave those other items for later.
It will become apparent to anyone that the quality of the article done by the multitasker will be different and has more propensity to be of lower quality than that of the fully focused freelancer.
This is because switching focus leaves more margin for errors in both quality and effort.
Think of our phenom, faking his/her focus on her article trying to give each sentence its due, while clicking on the backup tab as the client’s data transfers, listening for the oven and laundry machine chimes, and trying to think of a snazzier headline than that of the other guy that wrote an article like this one.
Whereas, our fully focused freelancer uses the time to get into a flow, thinking of all the articles s/he’s read and reviewed on the subject, thinking of his/her own life, and putting more aspects of what s/he’s been exposed to in each sentence she types.
S/he is putting every ounce of effort, physically and mentally, into the article in a way that may lessen the need for a thesaurus and flipping to search engines to flesh out ideas for supporting points, and s/he can draft it out in a much fuller way with a tone specific to their own writing voice – which is valuable in a world with our internet!
Why Everyone Wants Multitasking Skills
We all want to optimize our time and give our all to the work and the projects that we love. We all want to make sure that the people we love are taken care of and our environment is one that promotes good work.
We all want to make certain we are prioritizing the right things and spending our time the way we intended for the day. At the end of each day we want to know we got the big stuff accomplished.
The only reason the term “multitasker” became so sexy is the desire to optimize our time. If you weren’t one, you were trying to read books and go to seminars to learn how to become one.
Later, it was called out as a dirty word and we started to shout at people if they interrupted us for three seconds because we were giving our work a scary amount of savant-like attention, like a mad scientist disrupted and angry over a quick question about lunch.
Science confused some people, as it sometimes does, telling us for a few years that multitasking like a Stepford wife is the thing everyone should be and then realizing that, no…maybe not.
In short, science has come to the conclusion that multitasking may not be the best way to get things done.
One study found that media multitasking (using two or more media sources at the same time) among college students led to lower GPAs, test performance, information recall, comprehension, and note-taking. The researchers went on to point out that “Outside of the classroom, media multitasking is also tied to poorer classroom performance along with students predicting less confidence and lower scores”.
In another study that focused on physicians, researchers found that “Interruptions, multitasking and poor sleep were associated with significantly increased rates of prescribing errors”.
The general conclusion seems to be that multitasking increases errors, reduces memory recall, and hurts overall performance on a given task. As it seems to be time to ditch efforts with multitasking skills, here are some things you can do instead.
What to Do Instead of Multitasking
People like you and me who want to:
- Give the best of ourselves to our work and creative projects
- Get important life and adulting things done each week
- Have energy left over to not snap at those we love
- Feel like life is moving forward and we are accomplishing our goals
This means that there are days and weeks when we spend 1:00 PM to 3:00 PM getting five things completed.
However, this also means there are going to be more days and weeks where we are being a fully focused mad scientist, giving our all to the one thing in front of us for an undistracted two hours. We prioritize tasks, delegate tasks, and get things done.
Optimization of time takes a skill that we ALL have the capacity to learn and get better at.
This is the skill we need more of and the one skill that can help us truly get the time back that we think we are losing when we forget to turn on the dishwasher before we sit down to finish that financial report.
1. Don’t Fake It
What are the three most important things that need to be completed this week? Are these things able to be completed in the time you’ve allotted for them?
Break it down into hour chunks and see how many hours one whole item needs. Then, add ten percent more time to each.
That’s the true allotment of time each item will likely take to complete.
Now, without faking it, can you finish these important things this week or not?
Once you decide, check out this video to help you learn how to get into deep work and focus like a champion:
2. Multitask With the Mini-Tasks
Once you break down the big three things for the week, two of them may have mini-tasks built into the completion of them, and this is where you can utilize some multitasking skills.
This means you can have the best of both worlds because you can spread your energy during those time allotments to a mini-task and something else less urgent, getting those things done during the same time block.
3. Focus With Force
For the final, big task, we broke it down into chunks, and we see it has seven parts to complete this week. Each part will require your heart, mind, and soul.
When you work it out this way, you will know very clearly which time blocks to protect. It’s an amazing feeling to accomplish work this way, especially when you protect the time around it. It gives you an energy boost just thinking about HOW you will protect it.
By getting into a flow of focus, your work will begin to reflect who you really are. When you optimize and don’t compromise, you protect the work you do, and it shows.
If you need more help sharpening your focus, check out this Lifehack Fast-Track Class: End Distraction And Find Your Focus
Start Optimizing Your Time
Tips abound, and the research is extensive on multitasking versus switch-tasking. Prioritization often seems to fall under the “time management” umbrella, and yet, the point of prioritizing is to optimize the few precious hours we get in a productive adult life.
Optimizing is really the skill we need most because it forces us to dig deep and choose what’s most important to us personally. That’s something you can stand by.
More on How to Avoid Multitasking Skills
- How to Focus Your Attention and Improve Productivity with 7 Simple Tips
- How to Focus and Maximize Your Productivity (the Definitive Guide)
- Forget Learning How to Multitask to 10X Your Productivity
Featured photo credit: Marvin Meyer via unsplash.com
|||^||International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education: Efficient, helpful, or distracting? A literature review of media multitasking in relation to academic performance|
|||^||BMJ: Task errors by emergency physicians are associated with interruptions, multitasking, fatigue and working memory capacity: a prospective, direct observation study|