Let’s talk about Multitasking again!

Confessions of a multitasker

I am a multitasker; I’m doing it now.

There are a group of people sat around me discussing something, it’s a discussion that I could contribute too, but I’m also writing this blog post, I’m also allowing my iPhone to interrupt me. I’ve done this on many occasions and every time I do it I tell myself that I’m not going to do it again, so why am I doing it? The lie that I am telling myself is that the discussion doesn’t need all of my attention and I would be better spending my time doing something useful. I am kidding myself and every time you do something similar you are kidding yourself.

(I’ve been writing this blog post for over 40 minutes now and written 104 words. If I’d gone off to a quiet corner and really engaged I would have finished this post already. I’ll leave you to judge, but I suspect the quality of the words would be better as well.)

A recent report from the World Economic Forum based on some research from Stanford University, University of London and Sussex University highlighting the consequences of all of this multitasking which is probably more damaging than we might imagine.

Some of the report states what has been known for some time:

Multitasking reduces your efficiency and performance because your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. When you try to do two things at once, your brain lacks the capacity to perform both tasks successfully.

Repeat those words to yourself a few times: “your brain can only focus on one thing as a time”.

The report goes further, not only are you being less productive in the moment, the research is starting to point towards the impact being longer term:

It was long believed that cognitive impairment from multitasking was temporary, but new research suggests otherwise. Researchers at the University of Sussex in the UK compared the amount of time people spend on multiple devices (such as texting while watching TV) to MRI scans of their brains. They found that high multitaskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control.

While more research is needed to determine if multitasking is physically damaging the brain (versus existing brain damage that predisposes people to multitask), it’s clear that multitasking has negative effects.

So there you have it, there’s no advantage to be gained from multitasking, yet, we continue to tell ourselves that we are gaining something from trying to do two things at once. This isn’t the only situation where we behave illogically, but it is a growing madness as screens continue to proliferate.

Personally, I’ve been trying to build a set of practices which insulate me from the temptation to multitask. When i get home I’m trying to leave my iPhone somewhere out of reach and preferably out of view. I’m trying to take notes on paper in meetings, leaving the screens in my bag. When I have screen time I’m practising closing all applications apart from the one I’m focused on. I’m practising scheduling my days on a piece of paper. Another practice is to spend time in each day in silence or with quiet music without screens giving my brain time to calm down. What are your practises?

(It eventually took me two hours to write this post while multitasking which I did as a bit of an experiment to highlight the challenge. Hopefully the practices will reduce the time I’m multitasking and hopefully there isn’t any lasting damage to my brain.)

Attention Management – Focussed or Flexible

One of the questions I have had about Attention Management has been the balance between focussed attention which mandates a dedicated focus on a single activity verses the need to be flexible and adaptable. You can’t give detailed attention to more than one thing at a time.

Most days need me to make a choice between activities that push a number of activities a little further forward in a flexible way and detailed creative working on a specific activity.

Breadth and Variety v Total-focus and Perfection

In this recent video The School of Life highlights this conundrum in our desire for work-life balance:

I can see that there are problems at both ends of the spectrum. If you only ever do one thing then you probably aren’t living life to the fullest. If you are trying to do everything then you asking for a burn-out.  I suspect that the answer is different for each person, but how do we know where we should be in the continuum?

(Today’s picture is of a Puffin, they survive on sandeel, herring and capelin. In recent years there have been problems in the sandeel population of the coast of the UK. This has led to massive problems for the inflexible Puffin)