Stop multitasking and task switching… and start prioritizing

May 6, 2019

Can people multitask? Results of multitasking research say no, we really can’t. Thoughtful prioritization followed by single-tasking is a far better way to complete your daily tasks.

We fool ourselves into thinking we can multitask.

Finishing up a proposal while on a conference call.

Writing a text while having a conversation with your spouse.

Listening to a nurse’s concern about a patient while reviewing a different patient’s lab results.

After completing these tasks, one might feel that multitasking is effective and efficient. But, in reality, that proposal could have been stronger. You missed an opportunity to contribute to your team call. Your text was inadvertently autocorrected and didn’t make sense. Your spouse wishes you were more excited for him. You forgot to renew the order that your nurse asked for. And you missed an abnormality on those lab results.

Can people multitask? Here’s what happens when we try

Instead of actually performing two tasks at once when we multitask, our brains are rapidly switching between tasks. As we shift our attention to one task, we lose our attention and train of thought for another. The phrase “processing bottlenecks” has been used to describe the limits of our brains in trying to process multiple types of information simultaneously.

The result is a variety of unfavorable effects. These include decreased efficiency, long-term memory, and even creativity.

Moreover, attempting to multitask leaves us susceptible to intrusion from other stimuli in our environment that might be irrelevant to what we’re actually trying to do.

Multitasking for activities done on autopilot

Some activities don’t require high-level thought processing. Most of us can carry on a conversation while driving. Or brainstorm ideas for a project while we’re cleaning. Personally, I like to walk on a tread-desk while writing.

Charron and Koechlin, whose study “Divided Representation of Concurrent Goals in the Human Frontal Lobes” is reported in Science, used MRI to look at brain activity during multitasking. They found that, to some extent, the brain will split activity between the right and left prefrontal cortexes. But this split takes place only for district cognitive tasks.

And, of course, we only have two cortexes.

The study supports that practiced motor skills such as eating don’t overlap too much with activities that require language or other complex processes. So, this type of multitasking works to a degree.

Even autopilot multitasking can – and will – fail

Despite the MRI-proven ability to make your brain divide and conquer concurrent activities, we can’t depend on this to get us through our looming to-do lists. I guarantee that your conversation in the car comes to an abrupt halt when someone cuts in front of you and you have to slam on your brakes. And your brainstorming will pause the moment you knock over a vase while dusting.

Once we need to turn an autopilot task into a complex task, multitasking becomes impossible.

Being conscious about task switching

A great way to combat our nonsensical drive to try to multitask is to be conscious of when we’re switching tasks.

Tasking switching (or switch tasking, as it’s sometimes called) can be triggered by an interruption. For example, you hear Outlook make a ding and immediately open your email. Other times it’s prompted by a thought. You might shift your focus from one patient on your census to another when you remember that you had to place an order for them.

There is generally a cost every time we switch tasks. If you’ve ever returned to a task after being interrupted and said, “Now, where was I?” then you’ve experienced this cost. We lose the momentum of partially-resolved thoughts with every switch.

By being cognizant of when you’re disrupting one task for another, you can you begin to make deliberate choices about whether it actually makes sense to switch your focus at that time.

Ask yourself questions such as:

  • Does that email really need a response right away?
  • Is this deadline so tight that the assignment can’t wait another 30 minutes?
  • What will happen if I don’t contribute to this group text?

If the answers are Yes, Yes, Someone may die, by all means switch tasks. But if the answers are No, No, Nothing, then let the thought pass and continue working on what you were originally doing.

For the ultimate productivity, learn to single-task

Mindful task switching is a huge improvement over trying (and failing) to multitask. But we can all do even better.

How can you go beyond this? Task prioritization.

The better informed you are about all your obligations before you delve into a task, the less likely that a disruptive thought or an interruption will persuade you to rapidly switch tasks.

Start each day (or week, or shift) by:

  • Writing a to-do list
  • Adding due dates where applicable
  • Assigning priorities to each task

Have an action plan for emails, calls, and people interrupting you. Maybe you set aside a few blocks of time each day to check and respond to email.

This task prioritization will naturally lead you to monotask as you go about your daily activities.

Being acutely aware of your priorities will help you resist the urge to transition your attention from the task at hand to another one. You’ll know that the secondary task trying to creep its way in is not significant at that moment.

Sequentially completing tasks in order of importance or deadline eliminates the costs of rapidly forcing your brain to reset and restart partially completed processes.

Successful single tasking might not happen overnight

Prioritizing and actually following through with it may not feel natural at first, but plenty of tools can help. For example:

  • Time management methods such as the Pomodoro technique
  • Silencing your phone when you’re concentrating on a project
  • Arranging your workspace to be conducive to focusing
  • Scheduling breaks to address unanticipated stuff you need to do

Have you successfully gotten in the habit of monotasking? How has it benefited you?

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