The One Where: We Stop Multi-Tasking
Loads to do? Multi-tasking is your friend, isn’t it? We had a discussion on this last week, someone, (Becky) commenting how lucky it was that they can multi-task, and someone else, (Harry) commenting that multi-tasking is actually counter intuitive and makes you less productive – we know how to have a fun time!
The initial plan was to write a story, like a debate, with the pro’s and con’s of multi-tasking leaving you, the reader, to come to your own conclusion. But the evidence is overwhelming in support of not multi-tasking - sorry Becky - so this story explains why you shouldn’t be multi-tasking to become more productive.
What is Multi-Tasking?
When you are multi-tasking, how often are you actually doing two things at once? If you are texting and speaking, chances are you are texting, and then speaking, and then texting again. So not actually multi-tasking but switching quickly between one task and another.
This actually has a detrimental effect on your productivity because time is wasted switching from one task to another, as your brain needs to constantly stop doing one thing and start on another – this ‘switching time’ costs you time. If you focused on one task, completed it and then got started on the next, you do not waste time switching between tasks.
The American Psychological Association, (https://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask) actually found this mental block that is created when switching between tasks, can cost 40% of your productive time!
When you think about how company’s achieve synergies, they put things together. For example, if DHL are delivering a parcel to you, they will group similar delivery addresses so that the driver can deliver parcels in a similar location, at the same time.
The brain works in a similar way, by focusing on one area at the same time, for example replying to emails, the task a hand requires the same mindset. So, by replying to all emails at the same time, you quite literally, ‘get in the groove’ and are able to send more emails quicker.
If you multi-task and keep coming back to the emails, it is similar to the DHL driver delivering one package on the east side of the town, and then driving to the west side and then going back to the east side. It is much more efficient to do the east side and then the west side, i.e., one group of tasks and then another.
Multi-tasking usually means you are busy and have many things to do. And when you are busy, you rush. And when you rush, you make mistakes, it is a vicious circle. It also means you are never giving one task your full attention. This can, and has for us, lead to forgetting to attach files to emails, sending the wrong attachments in the emails, not knowing when you have been asked a question on a call.. (only so many times you can blame the wifi!).
When you are then multi-tasking, the risk of error is much higher as you likely will forget to go back and check something you did, as you would have forgotten what to check in your haste to move onto the next thing.
Jane is texting, walking, eating lunch, talking to her PA, speaking to her employees and reading the email that just came in.
Jane leaves her office after just replying to a text. She has as a quick catch up with her PA about the rest of the week and moves some things around. She then does a walk through to meet her employees. When she returns to her office she replies to some emails before eating lunch.
Which to you seems more sustainable, productive and less stressful? The first Jane is not in control, she is constantly on high alert from the next thing and is never able to relax, or give anything her full attention. The second Jane is much more in control and able to think clearly through moving her agenda and making time work better for her.
Be more like the second Jane.
Makes you.. less smart
The BBC reported a story in 2005, (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4471607.stm) that illustrated multi-tasking, in this case people being distracted by emails and phone calls, saw a 10-point drop in their IQ. This is the same as losing a night’s sleep and twice as much as the effect of marijuana.
Can’t see the forest through the trees
When you are multi-tasking, you are often so focused on doing multiple things, you can’t see what’s happening right in front of you. Western Washington University conducted research which showed 75% of people using their phone, did not spot a clown riding a unicycle. A clown riding a unicycle! https://www.livescience.com/5792-cell-phone-users-spot-clown-unicycle.html. If you can’t see a clown riding a unicycle, you are not going to see the impact of the next acquisition on your area – on whatever the meeting you are sitting is about, whilst you reply to your emails.
Slows you down
The same study also showed that multi-tasking, even something as basic as walking and speaking on your phone, slowed the individual down. Those just walking without distractions crossed the campus in 74seconds, whilst those on their phone weaved much more and walked slower – crossing the campus in 84seconds.
Because you are not focusing on one task in particular, you don’t pay as much attention of what you are doing, which results in you not remembering as much. This does worsen as you age, (https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2011/04/9676/ucsf-study-multitasking-reveals-switching-glitch-aging-brain).
Even the best multi-taskers
Are actually bad multi-taskers. A university of Utah study, (https://archive.unews.utah.edu/news_releases/frequent-mulitaskers-are-bad-at-it/) found that those who scored themselves highest for multi-tasking where actually worse at multi-tasking then those who scored themselves lowest for multi-tasking.
When we multi-task, we use our ‘working memory’ – think of it like the RAM on a PC. The working memory is also where our creativity comes from. So if you are constantly multi-tasking, you are not giving yourself time to be creative which especially harms creative problem-solving skills. To be more creative – stop multi-tasking.
Do it once
Multi-tasking often results in coming back to a particular task because you get distracted with something else before finishing it. Aside from actually taking longer to complete, as we discussed earlier, it also means you are dealing with the same task multiple times a day.
This is mentally exhausting and often feels like you aren’t getting anything done.
Even the articles that try to defend multi-tasking, (https://hbr.org/2010/06/in-defense-of-multitasking.html) aren’t really defending multi-tasking. We argue this is article has more in common with being organised. So, with all the benefits associated with not multi-tasking, for all those multi-taskers out there, your challenge, should you choose to accept it.
For one week – do not multi-task.
If you are on the phone, be on the phone. If you are replying to emails, reply to emails. If you are in a meeting – be in the meeting. See the difference that it makes to your productivity, health and happiness.
We are going to try it too – we can’t very well give you a challenge and not do it ourselves, so we will trial it for a week and let you know how we get on.
** Update **
So… we tried not multi-tasking.
And it was actually really good. Really productive, really beneficial and it really worked. For all of the three days before giving up. So, what was learnt? And what went wrong?
Went out of the window. Absolutely.
During the meetings, when the presenter was going off topic or not controlling the meeting, and even when meeting invites came through without an agenda, we went back to ask the purpose of the meeting. We had no, I mean zerotime, to be in the meetings if we didn’t need to be.
When you are ‘single tasking’ and you only do one thing at a time, you are very aware you have a list of things to be getting on with, so you want the point to be gotten to quickly and the meeting to be resolved quickly.
In the meeting
When we were in the meeting, we were in the meeting. We followed the conversation and contributed much more than before. Raised concerns, challenged, pushed back – we were actually in the meeting. This was a nice feeling compared to previously just paying attention, when our name or department was mentioned.
It was also easy to identify who in the meeting were the smart ones, those who were just regurgitating someone else’s points and who spoke a lot without actually saying anything. You pick up on these points much more and this was an interesting insight.
Productivity absolutely soared. Emails were switched off, although MS Teams was still on for ‘urgent’ things, but the to-do list had never reduced so quickly. Who would have thought, one thing at a time beats 5 things at the same time...
Another unexpected finding was that since we had embraced the ‘one thing at a time’ philosophy, this transcended work. So, when we went to walk the dog, we weren’t playing on our phones, waiting for the next email to come through, we were just walking the dog. This had a nice tranquillity feeling about it and we no longer had the ‘constantly plugged in feeling’. I think we found a solution for all those who are always on their phone….
So… with all the benefits found through single tasking... why did we only last 3 days? In a word. Meetings. Yes – we pushed back, contributed and rejected those meetings that were not relevant, but we couldn’t escape the sheer number of meetings absorbing all our time. Death by meetings.
In a COVID world, apparently meetings are the only way of communicating. Need to talk to Ben? I’ll book in a meeting. Might Caroline be somewhat marginally impacted by this project, better invite her to the full workshop. This mindset of meetings absolutely kills productivity and, in our case, the possibility of not multi-tasking. Back-to-back meetings all day, would mean no ‘non meeting work’ would get done in work hours. This leaves the possibility of working late or working whilst in a meeting, neither very attractive options.
What did we learn?
Single tasking works. And if you can do it, you should. If you can’t always, do it where you can. Focusing on one piece of work at a time is a good example. This also helped prevent us from having 20 excel files open and constantly swearing when we have the dreaded “not responding” box appear.
Secondly, we have a meeting culture issue. We struggle to think of a scenario where anyone has to be repeatedly in meetings for 8 hours a day. Being on the phone working together is fine, but for ‘proper’ meetings, this is unsustainable.
This experiment made us consider a few things that we would like to see. A reduction of the current 30min default meeting schedule. This should be set to 15mins. If you give yourself 30mins, it will take 30mins. Reducing meeting time, we hope will encourage people to get to the point quicker.
A fun concept, but one that we doubt will ever make it, would be an activity tracker. This would be something on Zoom / Teams to see if other people on the call are multi-tasking. We strongly believe, if everyone was focusing only on the meeting, there would be a meeting revolution, as people would realise how much time is ‘wasted’ in these calls. Everyone multi-tasks on calls and it would be interesting to see how long the current ‘norm’ would last when people actually listened to what was going on in these meetings.
This then actually got us thinking. What is the point in meetings? To ensure people read their emails? Is it to relay information? Is it to debate/discuss? To align people? The truth is, they are for all these things, and more. But we need a new way to deliver the outcomes of meetings - setting up a meeting cannot always be the answer. Maybe I will set up a meeting to discuss….