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Last Updated on October 15, 2019

Forget Learning How to Multitask: Boost Productivity 10X More with Focus

Forget Learning How to Multitask: Boost Productivity 10X More with Focus

There’s a dark side to the conveniences of the Digital Age. With smartphones that function like handheld computers, it has become increasingly difficult to leave our work behind. Sometimes it seems like we’re expected to be accessible 24/7.

How often are you ever focused on just one thing? Most of us try to meet these demands by multi-tasking.

Many of us have bought into the myth that we can achieve more through multi-tasking. In this article, I’ll show you how you can accomplish more work in less time. Spoiler alert: multi-tasking is not the answer.

Why is multitasking a myth?

The term “multi-tasking” was originally used to describe how microprocessors in computers work. Machines multitask, but people cannot.

Despite our inability to simultaneously perform two tasks at once, many people believe they are excellent multi-taskers.

You can probably imagine plenty of times when you do several things at once. Maybe you talk on the phone while you’re cooking or respond to emails during your commute.

Consider the amount of attention that each of these tasks requires. Chances are, at least one of the two tasks in question is simple enough to be carried out on autopilot.

We’re okay at simultaneously performing simple tasks, but what if you were trying to perform two complex tasks? Can you really work on your presentation and watch a movie at the same time? It can be fun to try to watch TV while you work, but you may be unintentionally making your work more difficult and time-consuming.

Your brain on multi-tasking

Your brain wasn’t designed to multi-tasking. To compensate, it will switch from task to task. Your focus turns to whatever task seems more urgent. The other task falls into the background until you realize you’ve been neglecting it.

When you’re bouncing back and forth like this, an area of the brain known as Broadmann’s Area 10 activates. Located in your fronto-polar prefrontal cortex at the very front of the brain, this area controls your ability to shift focus. People who think they are excellent multitaskers are really just putting Broadmann’s Area 10 to work.

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But I can juggle multiple tasks!

You are capable of taking in information with your eyes while doing other things efficiently. Scientifically speaking, making use of your vision is the only thing you can truly do while doing something else.

For everything else, you’re serial tasking. This constant refocusing can be exhausting, and it prevents us from giving our work the deep attention it deserves.

Think about how much longer it takes to do something when you have to keep reminding yourself to focus.

Why multitasking is failing you

Multitasking does more bad than good to your productivity, here’re 4 reasons why you should stop multitasking:

Multitasking wastes your time.

You lose time when you interrupt yourself. People lose an average of 2.1 hours per day getting themselves back on track when they switch between tasks.

In fact, some studies suggest that doing multiple things at once decreases your productivity by as much as 40%. That’s a significant loss in efficiency. You wouldn’t want your surgeon to be 40% less productive while you’re on the operating table, would you?

It makes you dumber.

A distracted brain performs a full 10 IQ points lower than a focused brain. You’ll also be more forgetful, slower at completing tasks, and more likely to make mistakes.

You’ll have to work harder to fix your mistakes. If you miss an important detail, you could risk injury or fail to complete the task properly.

This is an emotional response.

There’s so much data suggesting that multitasking is ineffective but people insist that they can multitask.

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Feeling productive fulfills an emotional need. We want to feel like we’re accomplishing something. Why accomplish just one item on the to-do list when you can check off two or three?

It’ll wear you out.

When you’re jumping from task to task, it can feel invigorating for a little while. Over time, this needs to fill every second with more and more work leads to burn out.

We’re simply not built to multitask, so when we try, the effect can be exhausting. This destroys your productivity and your motivation.

How to stop multitasking and work productively

Flitting back and forth between tasks feels second-nature after a while. This is in part because Broadmann’s Area 10 becomes better at serial tasking through time.

In addition to changing how the brain works, this serial tasking behavior can quickly turn into a habit.

Just like any bad habit, you’ll need to recognize that you need to make a change first. Luckily, there are a few simple things you can do to adjust to a lifestyle of productive mono-tasking:

1. Consciously change gears

Instead of trying to work on two distinct tasks at once, consider setting up a system to remind you when to change focus. This technique worked for Jerry Linenger, an American astronaut onboard the space station, Mir.

As an astronaut, he had many things to take care of every day. He set alarms for himself on a few watches. When a particular watch sounded, he knew it was time to switch tasks. This enabled him to be 100% in tune with what he was doing at any given moment.

This strategy is effective because the alarm served as his reminder for what was to come next. Linenger’s intuition about setting reminders falls in line with research conducted by Paul Burgess of University College, London on multitasking.

2. Manage multiple tasks without multitasking

Raj Dash of Performancing.com has an effective strategy for balancing multiple projects without multitasking. He suggests taking 15 minutes to acquaint yourself with a new project before moving on to other work. Revisit the project later and do about thirty minutes on research and brainstorming.

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Allow a few days to pass before knocking out the project in question. While you were actively work on other projects, your brain continues to problem solve-in the background.

This method works because it gives us the opportunity to work on several projects without allowing them to compete for your attention.

3. Set aside distractions

Your smartphone, your inbox and the open tabs on your computer are all open invitations for distraction. Give yourself time each day when you silence your notifications, close your inbox and remove unnecessary tabs from your desktop.

If you want to focus, you can’t give anything else an opportunity to invade your mental space.

Emails can be particularly invasive because they often have an unnecessary sense of urgency associated with them. Some work cultures stress the importance of prompt responses to these messages, but we can’t treat every situation like an emergency.

Designate certain times in your day for checking and responding to emails to avoid compulsive checking.

4. Take care of yourself

We often blame electronics for pulling us from our work, but sometimes our physical body forces us into a state of serial tasking. If you’re hungry while you’re trying to work, your attention will flip between your hunger and your work until you take care of your physical needs.

Try to take all your bio-breaks before you sit down for an uninterrupted stint of work.

In addition, you’ll also want to be sure you’re attending to your health in a broader sense. Getting enough exercise, practicing mindfulness and incorporating regular breaks into your day will keep you from being tempted by distractions.

5. Take a break

People are more likely to head to YouTube or check their social media when they need a break. Instead of trying to work and watch a mindless video at the same time, give yourself times when you’re allowed to enjoy your distracting activity of choice.

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Limit how much time you’ll spend on this break so that your guilt-free distraction time doesn’t turn into hours of wasted time.

6. Make technology your ally

Scientists are beginning to discover the detrimental effects of chronic serial tasking on our brains. Some companies are developing programs to curb this desire to multitask.

Apps like Forest turn staying focused into a game. Extensions like RescueTime help you track your online habits so that you can be more aware of how you spend your time.

The key to productivity: Focus

Multitasking is not the key to productivity. It’s far better to schedule time to focus on each task than it is to try to do everything at once.

Make use of the methods outlined above and prepare to be more effective and less exhausted in the process.

If you want to learn more about how to focus, don’t miss my other article:

How to Focus and Maximize Your Productivity (the Definitive Guide)

Featured photo credit: Javier Quesada via unsplash.com

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Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Last Updated on November 14, 2019

A Review of “The Art of Learning”

A Review of “The Art of Learning”

Review of Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance.  New York: Free Press, 2007.

    Josh Waitzkin has led a full life as a chess master and international martial arts champion, and as of this writing he isn’t yet 35.  The Art of Learning chronicles his journey from chess prodigy (and the subject of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer) to world championship Tai Chi Chuan with important lessons identified and explained along the way.  Marketing expert Seth Godin has written and said that one should resolve to change three things as a result of reading a business book; the reader will find many lessons in Waitzkin’s volume.  Waitzkin has a list of principles that appear throughout the book, but it isn’t always clear exactly what the principles are and how they tie together.  This doesn’t really hurt the book’s readability, though, and it is at best a minor inconvenience.  There are many lessons for the educator or leader, and as one who teaches college, was president of the chess club in middle school, and who started studying martial arts about two years ago, I found the book engaging, edifying, and instructive.

    Waitzkin’s chess career began among the hustlers of New York’s Washington Square, and he learned how to concentrate among the noise and distractions this brings. This experience taught him the ins and outs of aggressive chess-playing as well as the importance of endurance from the cagey players with whom he interacted.  He was discovered in Washington Square by chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini, who became his first coach and developed him from a prodigious talent into one of the best young players in the world.

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    The book presents Waitzkin’s life as a study in contrasts; perhaps this is intentional given Waitzkin’s admitted fascination with eastern philosophy.  Among the most useful lessons concern the aggression of the park chess players and young prodigies who brought their queens into the action early or who set elaborate traps and then pounced on opponents’ mistakes.  These are excellent ways to rapidly dispatch weaker players, but it does not build endurance or skill.  He contrasts these approaches with the attention to detail that leads to genuine mastery over the long run.

    According to Waitzkin, an unfortunate reality in chess and martial arts—and perhaps by extension in education—is that people learn many superficial and sometimes impressive tricks and techniques without developing a subtle, nuanced command of the fundamental principles.  Tricks and traps can impress (or vanquish) the credulous, but they are of limited usefulness against someone who really knows what he or she is doing. Strategies that rely on quick checkmates are likely to falter against players who can deflect attacks and get one into a long middle-game.  Smashing inferior players with four-move checkmates is superficially satisfying, but it does little to better one’s game.

    He offers one child as an anecdote who won many games against inferior opposition but who refused to embrace real challenges, settling for a long string of victories over clearly inferior players (pp. 36-37).  This reminds me of advice I got from a friend recently: always try to make sure you’re the dumbest person in the room so that you’re always learning.  Many of us, though, draw our self-worth from being big fish in small ponds.

    Waitzkin’s discussions cast chess as an intellectual boxing match, and they are particularly apt given his discussion of martial arts later in the book.  Those familiar with boxing will remember Muhammad Ali’s strategy against George Foreman in the 1970s: Foreman was a heavy hitter, but he had never been in a long bout before.  Ali won with his “rope-a-dope” strategy, patiently absorbing Foreman’s blows and waiting for Foreman to exhaust himself.  His lesson from chess is apt (p. 34-36) as he discusses promising young players who focused more intensely on winning fast rather than developing their games.

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    Waitzkin builds on these stories and contributes to our understanding of learning in chapter two by discussing the “entity” and “incremental” approaches to learning. Entity theorists believe things are innate; thus, one can play chess or do karate or be an economist because he or she was born to do so.  Therefore, failure is deeply personal.  By contrast, “incremental theorists” view losses as opportunities: “step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the master” (p. 30).  They rise to the occasion when presented with difficult material because their approach is oriented toward mastering something over time.  Entity theorists collapse under pressure.  Waitzkin contrasts his approach, in which he spent a lot of time dealing with end-game strategies
    where both players had very few pieces.  By contrast, he said that many young students begin by learning a wide array of opening variations.  This damaged their games over the long run: “(m)any very talented kids expected to win without much resistance.  When the game was a struggle, they were emotionally unprepared.”  For some of us, pressure becomes a source of paralysis and mistakes are the beginning of a downward spiral (pp. 60, 62).  As Waitzkin argues, however, a different approach is necessary if we are to reach our full potential.

    A fatal flaw of the shock-and-awe, blitzkrieg approach to chess, martial arts, and ultimately anything that has to be learned is that everything can be learned by rote.  Waitzkin derides martial arts practitioners who become “form collectors with fancy kicks and twirls that have absolutely no martial value” (p. 117).  One might say the same thing about problem sets.  This is not to gainsay fundamentals—Waitzkin’s focus in Tai Chi was “to refine certain fundamental principles” (p. 117)—but there is a profound difference between technical proficiency and true understanding.  Knowing the moves is one thing, but knowing how to determine what to do next is quite another.  Waitzkin’s intense focus on refined fundamentals and processes meant that he remained strong in later round while his opponents withered.  His approach to martial arts is summarized in this passage (p. 123):

    “I had condensed my body mechanics into a potent state, while most of my opponents had large, elegant, and relatively impractical repertoires.  The fact is that when there is intense competition, those who succeed have slightly more honed skills than the rest.  It is rarely a mysterious technique that drives us to the top, but rather a profound mastery of what may well be a basic skill set.  Depth beats breadth any day of the week, because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.”

    This is about much more than smelling blood in the water.  In chapter 14, he discusses “the illusion of the mystical,” whereby something is so clearly internalized that almost imperceptibly small movements are incredibly powerful as embodied in this quote from Wu Yu-hsiang, writing in the nineteenth century: “If the opponent does not move, then I do not move.  At the opponent’s slightest move, I move first.”  A learning-centered view of intelligence means associating effort with success through a process of instruction and encouragement (p. 32).  In other words, genetics and raw talent can only get you so far before hard work has to pick up the slack (p. 37).

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    Another useful lesson concerns the use of adversity (cf. pp. 132-33).  Waitzkin suggests using a problem in one area to adapt and strengthen other areas.  I have a personal example to back this up.  I will always regret quitting basketball in high school.  I remember my sophomore year—my last year playing—I broke my thumb and, instead of focusing on cardiovascular conditioning and other aspects of my game (such as working with my left hand), I waited to recover before I got back to work.

    Waitzkin offers another useful chapter entitled “slowing down time” in which he discusses ways to sharpen and harness intuition.  He discusses the process of “chunking,” which is compartmentalizing problems into progressively larger problems until one does a complex set of calculations tacitly, without having to think about it.  His technical example from chess is particularly instructive in the footnote on page 143.  A chess grandmaster has internalized much about pieces and scenarios; the grandmaster can process a much greater amount of information with less effort than an expert.  Mastery is the process of turning the articulated into the intuitive.

    There is much that will be familiar to people who read books like this, such as the need to pace oneself, to set clearly defined goals, the need to relax, techniques for “getting in the zone,” and so forth.  The anecdotes illustrate his points beautifully.  Over the course of the book, he lays out his methodology for “getting in the zone,” another concept that people in performance-based occupations will find useful.  He calls it “the soft zone” (chapter three), and it consists of being flexible, malleable, and able to adapt to circumstances.  Martial artists and devotees of David Allen’s Getting Things Done might recognize this as having a “mind like water.”  He contrasts this to “the hard zone,” which “demands a cooperative world for you to function.  Like a dry twig, you are brittle, ready to snap under pressure” (p. 54).  “The Soft Zone is resilient, like a flexible blade of grass that can move with and survive hurricane-force winds” (p. 54).

    Another illustration refers to “making sandals” if one is confronted with a journeyacross a field of thorns (p. 55).  Neither bases “success on a submissive world or overpowering force, but on intelligent preparation and cultivated resilience” (p. 55). Much here will be familiar to creative people:  you’re trying to think, but that one song by that one band keeps blasting away in your head.  Waitzkin’s “only option was to become at peace with the noise” (p. 56).  In the language of economics, the constraints are given; we don’t get to choose them.

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    This is explored in greater detail in chapter 16.  He discusses the top performers, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and others who do not obsess over the last failure and who know how to relax when they need to (p. 179).  The experience of NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh is also useful as “the more he could let things go” while the defense was on the field, “the sharper he was in the next drive” (p. 179).  Waitzkin discusses further things he learned while experimenting in human performance, particularly with respect to “cardiovascular interval training,” which “can have a profound effect on your ability to quickly release tension and recover from mental exhaustion” (p. 181).  It is that last concept—to “recover from mental exhaustion”—that is likely what most academics need help with.

    There is much here about pushing boundaries; however, one must earn the right to do so: as Waitzkin writes, “Jackson Pollock could draw like a camera, but instead he chose to splatter paint in a wild manner that pulsed with emotion”  (p. 85).  This is another good lesson for academics, managers, and educators.  Waitzken emphasizes close attention to detail when receiving instruction, particularly from his Tai Chi instructor William C.C. Chen.  Tai Chi is not about offering resistance or force, but about the ability “to blend with (an opponent’s) energy, yield to it, and overcome with softness” (p. 103).

    The book is littered with stories of people who didn’t reach their potential because they didn’t seize opportunities to improve or because they refused to adapt to conditions.  This lesson is emphasized in chapter 17, where he discusses “making sandals” when confronted with a thorny path, such as an underhanded competitor.  The book offers several principles by which we can become better educators, scholars, and managers.  Celebrating outcomes should be secondary to celebrating the processes that produced those outcomes (pp. 45-47).  There is also a study in contrasts beginning on page 185, and it is something I have struggled to learn.  Waitzkin points to himself at tournaments being able to relax between matches while some of his opponents were pressured to analyze their games in between.  This leads to extreme mental fatigue: “this tendency of competitors to exhaust themselves between rounds of tournaments is surprisingly widespread and very self-destructive” (p. 186).

    The Art of Learning has much to teach us regardless of our field.  I found it particularly relevant given my chosen profession and my decision to start studying martial arts when I started teaching.  The insights are numerous and applicable, and the fact that Waitzkin has used the principles he now teaches to become a world-class competitor in two very demanding competitive enterprises makes it that much easier to read.  I recommend this book to anyone in a position of leadership or in a position that requires extensive learning and adaptation.  That is to say, I recommend this book to everyone.

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    Featured photo credit: Jazmin Quaynor via unsplash.com

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