Why you should stop multitasking and start monotasking instead
Did you ever find yourself in a Zoom or MS-Teams call, where you're supposed to be concentrated, but instead, you are preparing a presentation for another meeting? Or have you ever been so distracted by a call or an email that you had to start your task for the 10th time? If we're being honest, everybody does it. Everybody tries to be as productive as possible by multitasking. But are we really efficient working in that manner? Or is it just what we were told?
For decades now, employers have been looking for people who can supposedly multitask. And our lives getting more hectic does not help either. It seems that the only way to cope is by doing multiple things at a time. But studies have shown that humans are not supposed to do that.
In the sixties, the term "multitasking" was introduced in the context of technology. It was used to describe the performance of a computer. I'm not telling you a secret when I say that we are not computers, and our resources are limited. According to psychologists, our visual attention can be imagined like a spotlight or lens. We can either concentrate on details or be aware of more things. But both at the same time is not possible for the human brain.
An interesting experiment by Daniel Simons, a professor at the University of Illinois, demonstrates this. His research focuses on visual cognition. In 1999 he and his colleague Chris Chabris conducted the so-called "the invisible gorilla" experiment. A video of six people, dressed in black and white shirts, passing basketballs to each other was shown to the participants. The task was to count how often the people dressed in white shirts would pass the ball. After 30 seconds, a person dressed up in a gorilla costume would walk between the players, stop in the middle, look straight into the camera and then walk off onto the other side. In total, he's about 9 seconds in the frame. Surprisingly half of the participants did not recognize the gorilla. Professor Simons states: "You don't have an unlimited amount of attention to devote to other things. And you only see those things that we focus our attention on. The problem is that on occasion, we filter something we might want to notice." And he continues: "There is a mismatch of what we see and what we think we see. "
But I can cook and listen to music at the same time? Isn't that multitasking, you might ask? Well, it is only possible to do two things at the same time when different sets of cognitive resources are used. That's why talking on the phone while driving is problematic, even when using a hands-free system. While talking to someone on the phone, you are creating mental images which use the same visual resources that are needed for driving. According to research by David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, individuals talking on the phone while driving are as likely to cause an accident as intoxicated ones. As with all things — there is always an exception to the rule. About two percent of people seem to be so-called "supertasker". Strayer explains that there is a measurable different activity in the brain of a supertasker while multitasking. To be more precise, the activity is not becoming more but less: "they are functioning more efficiently." Strayer says.
In 2001 Joshua Rubinstein, PhD, Jeffrey Evans, PhD, and David Meyer, PhD, publicized the results of four experiments in which young adults participated. The participants had to switch between tasks, e.g., math problems or classifying geometric objects. They discovered that all participants lost time when switching from one task to another. As the tasks got more complex, the participants needed even more time to switch between the tasks. They also observed that participants lost more time when they switched to the relatively unfamiliar task but got faster with rather known tasks. Imagine how much time per day you lose because you switch back and forth between tasks.
Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, professor at the University of Texas, even goes as far as to say that multitasking is damning your brain. She argues that: "Multitasking is a brain drain that exhausts the mind, zaps cognitive resources and, if left unchecked, condemns us to early mental decline and decreased sharpness. Chronic multitaskers also have increased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which can damage the memory region of the brain." But there's also good news. Her research has shown that by training your brain and creating healthier thinking habits (e.g., monotasking), you can work against the decline and even rejuvenate your mind. And as always, exercise, a healthy diet and sleeping patterns are also beneficial.
So, how do you leave multitasking behind and start monotasking? Sandra Bond Chapman suggests these three steps:
1. Allow yourself to take some breaks. In between tasks, try to give yourself three to five minutes. Open a window to get some fresh air or just look outside.
2. Eliminate distraction. Try to give full attention to your task. Turn off notifications and silence your phone. There are even tools and apps (e.g., rescuetime) which can support reducing distraction. Try this for 15 min in the beginning and increase the duration progressively.
3. Make a to-do list and work on one task at a time.
Also, the often recommended pomodoro technique can be helpful. Find out how it works here.
In a day and age where everything gets faster, more hectic and where employers praise multitasking, an act of taking your time for one task at a time might almost sound rebellious. Monotasking is definitely a different approach to tasks, but I think it is worth giving it a try. You can find further information and helpful apps down below.
Tools & Apps
Sources & further information:
Why the modern world is bad for your brain
Our brains are busier than ever before. We're assaulted with facts, pseudo facts, jibber-jabber, and rumour, all posing…
The Invisible Gorilla:
What multitasking does to your brain | BBC Ideas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tMiyzuO1qMs