What multitasking does to our brainsPosted on Tuesday, June 26th, 2012 We all know this and have heard it hundreds of times. To work efficiently we have to single task. No multitasking. And yet, we let it slip. We end up eating lunch in front of the TV with our laptop open. We browse Twitter and Facebook, whilst sending emails, and chatting in multiple Gchat windows too. When really we should be focusing on just that one assignment, blog post, proposal or piece of code.
So one thing is for sure, we are all aware multitasking different things at the same time makes us less efficient. Why the heck is it so hard to focus on just one thing then?
Recently I started to develop a new work routine online, that specifically focuses on singletasking only. The results I got were amazing and I want to share more on this further down.
To understand what actually goes on in our brains and see if it all makes sense, I went ahead and found some stunning research and answers to these questions:
Why we multitask in the first place: It makes us feel goodTo understand why we always fall into the habit of multitasking, when we know we shouldn’t, I found some very interesting studies. The answer is in fact quite simple:
“[People who multitask] are not being more productive — they just feel more emotionally satisfied from their work.”This is what researcher Zhen Wang mentions in a recent study on multitasking. She mentioned that if we study with our books open, watch TV at the same time and text friends every so often, we get a great feeling of fulfillment. We are getting all these things done at once, and we feel incredibly efficient.
Unfortunately, exactly the opposite is the case. Students who engaged heavily in multitasking activities felt great, but their results were much worse than that of people who didn’t multitask.
Another problem a study found, is that multitaskers seem very efficient from the outside, so we want to be like them. We see someone who can juggle emailing, doing phone calls and writing a blogpost on the side and feel “wow”, that is incredible. I want to be able to do that too!
So very unknowingly we put a lot of pressure onto ourselves to juggle more and more tasks. When really, it only seemingly makes us more productive. The daily output as Wang found, only decreases though.
What is going on in our brains when we multitask?The interesting part is that our brains can’t multitask at all. If we have lunch, 5 Facebook chat windows open and also try to send off an email, it isn’t that our brain focuses on all these activities at the same time.
Instead, multitasking splits the brain. It creates something researchers have called “spotlights”. So all your brain is doing is to frantically switch between the activity of eating, to writing an email, to answering chat conversations.
In the image below, you can see the different brain activities for various tasks that the brain switches between. It jumps back and forth as you focus on each task for a few seconds at a time:
He found that none of these 3 points are true:
“We were absolutely shocked. We all lost our bets. It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.”People who multitask a lot are in fact a lot worse at filtering irrelevant information and also perform significantly worse at switching between task, compared to singletaskers.
Now most studies all point towards the fact that multitasking is very bad for us. We get less productive and skills like filtering out irrelevant information decline. Personally I had the same results without ever reading the above studies before. I put some things in place, especially with working online, to win my productivity back and ban multitasking from my workflow once and for all.
How I developed a singletasking workflow online by adding a twist to well-known techniquesBefore I learnt about any of the above, I had my own struggles with multitasking. I would have 2 separate email inboxes open, TweetDeck at the same time, as well as Facebook and an instant messaging tool.
The thing was that I felt very much on top of things, hitting “command + tab” all the time to check if I missed anything in one of the windows. With every tab switch it felt as my head would get bigger, whilst I would get less and less done at the same time. Both my brain and my work was rather scattered.
I had to stop this and I had to stop it immediately to work more productively on Buffer. To solve my multitasking madness, there were in fact 3 key changes I made to develop a full-on single tasking focus:
1. The single browser tab habitOne strategy I put in place is something I call singletab browsing. I would limit myself to only keep 1 browser tab open whenever I am working. That way I had to really prioritize what the most important task was that I had to work on.
To explain in some more detail. Some key tasks I am juggling are email support via our HelpScout inbox, Tweets for our @bufferapp account, blogposts for the Buffer blog here and emails from my personal inbox.
Before I would have all these things open at the same time. Now I work through them one by one. Only my HelpScout inbox is open. Then only TweetDeck is open to reply to any Tweets. Then I move on to close everything and only open Word to start writing. And finally I move to my personal email inbox, closing everything else again.
Doing this is only possible with one improvement I put in place: