Do you really like it when people interrupt you? Do you find that constant interruptions really boost your productivity? Do you always look for the noisiest corner to do your work? If you multitask, you do.
My friends Constant Hine and Debra Larsen are accomplished trainers and consultants. They have created a video on multi-tasking. Constant and Debra define the problem with multitasking better than many of the studies I have read on it. When you multitask you constantly “interrupt yourself.” See their video here Constant Hine: “Multitasking is a Myth!” video
No, you can’t do two things at once. A computer can’t do two things at once. No, it can’t. It can do a series of quite unalike things in very rapid sequence, but it can’t do them at the same time. For you the situation is even worse. You do things by switching your attention from one thing to another.
You are working on one thing when you interrupt yourself to respond to a stimulus. You could ignore the stimulus. You could even arrange for the stimulus not to occur, but you respond to it. You deal with it and you return to your original task. Fine, you think.
You have only partially returned to your original task. You are not focused on it. It will take you 15 minutes to refocus. People who appear adept at multitasking are actually good at “continuous partial attention.” This translates to doing more than one thing poorly.
A very common example of this is driving and talking on a cell phone. Both of these activities use the same part of the brain. A 2006 study published in Human Factors journal showed that drivers talking on cell phones were involved in more rear end collisions and sped up more slowly than drivers intoxicated over the 0.08% legal limit.
How many times have you seen some one do something truly stupid while driving? How many times did the driver not have a cell phone or blue tooth clamped to their ear? It’s the conversation, not holding the phone, that is the distraction.
So what? Well, a couple of things. Multitasking is only suitable for tasks that don’t need to be done well. Maybe the better solution is not to do them. Multitasking makes it impossible to focus. We are constantly remembering a little of what we just did and worrying about the next interruption. We are not present for any task. Remember the last time you went into a room and could not remember why you did? Thank multitasking.
To do it well. We must focus. With a significant refocus time, we can easily spend the entire day without ever being focused. For things you can control set a times to do all of each repetitive task. For things that require more time and focus block out sufficient time to both focus and complete. Turn off phones and email announcement to avoid other interruptions.
A last consideration. Interruptions by other people and media annoy us. Our constant interruption of ourselves is also an annoyance. You can spend your whole day annoying yourself. What is the point in that?