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The Ability to Multitask Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

The Ability to Multitask Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

    There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.” ~ Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, April 1747

    Everybody I know has too much to do and too little time to get it done. Overstuffed schedules and overlong to-do lists mean many people live those “lives of quiet desperation” where at any given time we’re trying to do several things at once. The infamous ability to multitask.

    Sure, I can cook dinner and help the kids with their homework.

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    I can read a magazine and eat dinner while watching the TV shows I’ve recorded on my DVR.

    I can reply to text messages while I drive? (Wait, no I can’t. That’s illegal.) But I can do it at the dinner table.

    I can monitor emails during that business meeting.

    When tasks-to-be-done exceed time-in-the-day, it seems reasonable and efficient to double up on activities. It’s the only way to get it all done, right?

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    Right?

    Maybe not.

    Human multitasking, meaning the ability to do more than one task simultaneously, is a myth. Don’t take my word for it. Check out this NPR story and this piece in The New Atlantis. Numerous scientific studies have shown that when we think we’re multitasking, what our brain is actually doing is rapidly switching its focus back and forth among the various tasks. That hyperspeed switching has been found to actually impair productivity and even to temporarily (we hope) lower the multitasker’s IQ.

    But just as important as these is how the ability to multitask impairs the quality of life. Habitual multitasking eventually leads to an inability to relax, to turn off, or to focus on anything for very long. It’s virtually impossible to be at peace if your mind is perpetually jumping among multiple attention-takers. Over time you realize you’re always tense, you don’t sleep well, and–maybe worst of all–the people in your life feel that you’re disconnected and even uncaring.

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    While sometimes it’s appropriate, and even necessary, to handle more than one task at a time, it is crucially important to your mental health to create some space in your life when you’re not being pulled in multiple directions. Space for quiet, for peace.

    How? A few things come to mind:

    • For some portion of every day, disconnect from the internet. Completely. Don’t check your email, or Facebook, or Twitter. Don’t play online games. Watch an entire movie without once checking your smart phone. Start with an hour a day and build up your tolerance level until you can stay offline for a full day.
    • Turn off your phone at night or leave it in a different room. I struggle with this one. I have a busy legal practice, with clients who expect to be able to reach me pretty much 24/7. I used to keep my BlackBerry on my nightstand while I slept, and would awaken in the night to check and respond to emails. I’ve abandoned that practice, and now leave my iPhone down the hall, in my home office, at night.
    • Take the weekends off. Although it seems that in my profession we’re never really off-duty, we can safely disconnect from work at appropriate times. On the weekends, I leave my iPhone in my home office while I do other things, checking a few times a day for urgent messages. I no longer keep it within reach at all times. And I haven’t yet lost a single client because of it.
    • Take regular breaks. Read this article for great ideas on how and when.
    • Don’t take your phone to dinner. Put your phone in another room at dinner time, and just spend those few minutes talking with the people at the table.
    • Drive in silence. I have a long daily commute, and I like to use that time to listen to audiobooks or podcasts. But sometimes, I turn everything off and drive in silence, with nothing to listen to but my own thoughts.
    • Spend some time every day, or at least every week, outdoors, with no electronic devices. Sometimes, run without an iPod. Walk without your smart phone. Just you and the birds.
    • Read a book with no music and no TV in the background.
    • Don’t check emails during business meetings. Leave your smart phone or iPad in your office. Unless people’s actual, physical lives depend on reaching you at a moment’s notice (probably only true if you are a doctor or the President of the United States), the world won’t come to an end if you are out of the loop for an hour. So pay attention to what’s being said in the meeting. Take notes on paper if you need to. This is one that I need to work on this week.

    The idea is to be a little more in the moment, and a little less distracted. You will find that as you make it a priority to focus more and “multitask” less, several benefits will accrue.

    First, things that really don’t matter will fall off your to-do list.

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    Second, you’ll actually accomplish more (and more high-quality) work on the tasks that have your undivided attention.

    Third, the people you interact with will begin to feel more valued and more “heard.”

    Fourth, you will begin to feel less stressed and more at peace with yourself.

    What do you think? Could your life be improved by focusing on one task at a time? Do you have any tips that you’d add to the list above? I’d love to see your thoughts in the comments below.

    (Photo credit: Working from Home via Shutterstock)

    More by this author

    Laura McClellan

    Passionate about encouraging women in their roles as wives, mothers, friends, and workers.

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    Last Updated on May 7, 2021

    Productivity Boost: How to start your day at 5:00 AM

    Productivity Boost: How to start your day at 5:00 AM

    I have been an early-riser for over a year now. Monday through Friday I wake up at 5:00 AM without hitting the snooze button even once. I never take naps and rarely feel tired throughout the day. The following is my advice on how to start your day (everyday) at 5:00 AM.The idea of waking up early and starting the day at or before the sunrise is the desire of many people. Many highly successful people attribute their success, at least in part, to rising early. Early-risers have more productive mornings, get more done, and report less stress on average than “late-risers.” However, for the unaccustomed, the task of waking up at 5:00 AM can seem extremely daunting. This article will present five tips about how to physically wake up at 5:00 AM and how to get yourself mentally ready to have a productive day.

    Many people simply “can’t” get up early because they are stuck in a routine. Whether this is getting to bed unnecessarily late, snoozing repetitively, or waiting until the absolute last possible moment before getting out of bed, “sleeping in” can easily consume your entire morning. The following tips will let you break the “sleeping in” routine.

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    Relocate your alarm clock.

    Having an alarm clock too close to your bed is the number one reason people simply cannot get up in the morning. If your alarm clock is within arms reach of your bed, or if you can turn your alarm clock off without getting out of bed, you are creating an unnecessarily difficult situation for yourself. Before I became an early-riser, there were many times that I would turn off my alarm without even waking up enough to remember turning it off. I recommend moving your alarm clock far enough away from your bed that you have to get completely out of bed to turn it off. I keep my alarm clock in the bathroom. This may not be possible for all living arrangements, however, I use my cellphone as an alarm clock and putting it in the bathroom makes perfect sense. In order to turn off my alarm I have to get completely out of bed, and since going to the restroom and taking a shower are the first two things I do everyday, keeping the alarm clock in the bathroom streamlines the start of my morning.

    Scrap the snooze.

    The snooze feature on all modern alarm clocks serves absolutely no constructive purpose. Don’t even try the “it helps me slowly wake up” lie. I recommend buying an alarm that does not have a snooze button. If you can’t find an alarm without a snooze button, never read the instructions so you will never know how long your snooze button lasts. Not knowing whether it waits 10 minutes or 60 minutes should be enough of a deterrent to get you to stop using it.

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    Change up your buzzer

    If you use the same buzzer day in and day out, you begin to develop a tolerance to the sound. The alarm clock will slowly become less effective at waking you up over time. Most newer alarm clocks will let you set a different buzzer tone for the different days of the week. If you change your buzzer frequently, you will have an easier time waking up.

    Make a puzzle

    If you absolutely cannot wake up without repetitive snoozing, try making a puzzle for yourself. It doesn’t take rocket science to understand that the longer your alarm is going off, the more awake you will become. Try making your alarm very difficult to turn off by putting it under the sink, putting it under the bed, or better yet, by forcing yourself to complete a puzzle to turn it off. Try putting your alarm into a combination-locked box and make yourself put in the combination in order to turn off the alarm — it’s annoying, but extremely effective!

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    Get into a routine

    Getting up at 5:00 AM is much easier if you are doing it Monday through Friday rather than sporadically during the week. I recommend setting an alarm once that repeats everyday. Also, going to bed at about the same time every night is an important factor to having a productive morning. Learn how much sleep you need to get in order to not feel exhausted the following day. Some people can get by on 4-6 hours while most need 7-8.

    Have a reason

    Make sure you have a specific reason to get up in the morning. Getting up at 5:00 AM just for the heck of it is a lot more difficult than if you are getting up early to plan your day, pay bills, go for a jog, get an early start on work, etc. I recommend finding something you want to do for yourself in the morning. It will be a lot easier to get up if you are guaranteed to do something fun for yourself — compare this to going on vacation. You probably have no problem waking up very early on vacation or during holidays. My goal every morning is to bring that excitement to the day by doing something fun for myself.

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    As I previously mentioned, I have been using these tips for a very long time. Joining the world of early-risers has been a great decision. I feel less stressed, I get more done, and I feel happier than I did when I was a late-riser. If you follow these tips you can become an early-riser, too. Do you have any tips that I didn’t mention? What works best for you? Let us know in the comments.

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