The hardest positive constraint ever. Impossible, in fact. Mainly because I had no idea what multitasking was.
What is multitasking?
Multitasking is doing more than one thing at exactly the same time. This is what I’m doing right now, in fact: I’m writing this blogpost while listening to Bach’s Toccata in D minor.
Okay, that’s probably not what you think of as multitasking. Writing feels active, while listening feels passive. Nothing bad will happen if I zone out of listening to Bach. Something bad will happen, however, if I zone out of writzifljds.
But I am only able to multitask in this instance because writing and listening to Bach use different parts of my brain. If there were lyrics in this piece of classical music, then I would be unable to multitask writing and listening.
Listening might feel passive, but it’s still a cognitive distraction. Hence why music helps beginner runners forget the pain, but has no effect on more advanced runners – and might even slow them down.
Except for the very rare times when different tasks use different parts of the brain, multitasking is only possible if one of the tasks has been fully automated. I can walk and talk, just about. But that’s pretty much it. I can’t drive safely and talk on the phone at the same time – and neither can you.
Aside from walking and talking, almost everything else that I thought of as multitasking – doing the washing up while cooking dinner, reading a research paper in one window while watching YouTube videos in another, brushing my teeth while tidying away my clothes, speaking to a friend on the phone while scrolling through the rugby scores – isn’t actually multitasking, it’s just rapid task-switching. Or being a dick.
Either way, it sucks.
What is task-switching?
Task-switching is exactly what you think it is: starting one task, then switching to another before the first is finished. This is what I do a lot of. In fact, my day often resembles a vast Russian doll of activity.
Take one simple set of tasks that I performed today, under the title Returning Home From The Greengrocer:
- I throw my coat onto the sofa, but don’t put it away.
- I start to unpack my bag, until I reach a banana. Ooh!
- I unpeel the banana and take a bite. I put down the banana.
- I finish unpacking my bag, but don’t put the cheese into the fridge.
- I take the banana over to my computer and check my email. Ooh!
If I’m lucky, the cheese hasn’t completely melted before I get around to finishing the simple task of unpacking groceries sometime around midnight.
Task-switching is what I’m doing when I catch myself automatically going over to my computer while talking to a friend on the phone. It might feel like I can scroll while talking – but I can’t. How on earth can I read about Scotland getting cheated in the Rugby World Cup while also listening and reacting to my friend’s story about her leaking pond? It’s impossible.
Instead, my brain rapidly switches between the two tasks, so fast that I pretend to myself that I really am multitasking. But I’m bound to miss something (just like referee Craig Joubert in the rugby) and then there’ll be an awkward pause in the conversation. “Hmm? What, sorry?”
But it’s too late – the conversation has gone sour.
Why multitasking is bad, according to science
- Task-switching means you have to devote effort to the switch that could otherwise be employed in doing the task. Switching tasks eats up as much as 40% of your productive time.
- Even just being physically near a classic task-switching tool, like a phone or computer, can make your brain go into meltdown as if you were multitasking.
- Task-switching is stressful. Behave like a stressed out multi-tasker and you’ll feel like one. And get less done.
- Multitasking while eating makes food taste crap. And you’ll eat more.
- Task-switching might damage your creativity. (Or maybe not? – see below.)
- Multi-tasking regularly might be making you mentally disorganised, including harming your working memory.
There is one positive aspect of task-switching that I know of, but it’s certainly not the random, distraction-led task-switching that so many of us get addicted to. Ending a task before it’s finished means that your subconscious can work on the problem without you, while you do the washing up or go for a walk.
This is useful only in a restricted field of activity – putting my coat away doesn’t require a creative breakthrough – and only after you’ve put in a sustained period of effort into the task already.
How did I do?
This has been super hard, but worth it – and for two reasons that stretch beyond the science-supported examples above.
Mono-tasking makes things more fun. I’ve found that, when I’m task-switching, I enjoy each task much less. If I throw all of my attention into cooking and then eating dinner, I will enjoy the rich sensual experience fully. If, however, I’m half-watching an episode of Maigret while shovelling porridge into my face, then I’ll not fully enjoy either.
I’ve started a new morning habit that attempts to instill this mono-tasking frame of mind: reading 20 pages of my book. Sitting down and reading 20 pages can only be done by mono-tasking and I’ve found that this new habit has disrupted my old task-switching routine of thrashing around on my computer, checking email, brushing my teeth, going to the toilet, showering and cramming in breakfast.
Secondly, the exclusive attention of mono-tasking is an extremely powerful tool – and not just for learning, getting tasks done quickly or enjoying my food. As more and more of us get distracted by task-switching devices like our phones, a little burst of exclusive attention lavished on us feels more and more special.
So when you’re with other people, agree to switch off your phones and hide them in a drawer. Because mono-tasking = love.