True and false multitasking: why we keep multitasking and what to do about it

 

You already have 10 items on your to-do list for the day, but clients and colleagues are throwing in more in the form of urgent questions or asap tasks? Do you feel like you’ve been solving problems and communicating with someone all day, but your to-do list hasn’t shrunk? Unfortunately, that’s the way a lot of people work. Multitasking is still the norm, despite the fact that not only does it not increase productivity, but on the contrary, it decreases it. And it also causes stress, impairs memory and accelerates the onset of fatigue. This is proved by numerous studies, which we will talk about below.

Let’s look into exactly what the harms of multitasking are, how we feed it ourselves, and what to do if you get tired of it.

True and false multitasking: why we keep multitasking and what to do about it

Is multitasking a frequent switch?

First, let’s be clear about what we will mean by multitasking in this article so that the comments won’t say, “I’m bored doing one thing all day, I like to switch, and it’s not harmful at all!”

Some people understand multitasking as having 5, 10, 20 tasks on a to-do list every day. Isn’t that a lot? So multitasking it is. In fact, it doesn’t really matter how many tasks you have. What matters is how many switches between different stimuli as you perform those tasks, how often your attention jumps from one item to another throughout the day, and whether you can concentrate fully on an item without being distracted. If you complete your scheduled tasks, concentrating on each one as much as possible, that’s a healthy routine. Of course, you can say that 10-20 tasks are too many, but we are not considering the volume of work in this article.

By multitasking we mean a mode when several tasks (for example, correspondence with a client and analysis of an advertising campaign) are performed simultaneously. To be more precise, simultaneity is an illusion.

 

Conventionally speaking, there are no cores in the human brain, as in modern processors, that can execute different instructions really simultaneously and independently of each other. There is only 1 process in the human attention span at any given time, and the sense of simultaneity is created because of the frequent and very fast switching between tasks. For example, in the process of analyzing a campaign, first a question comes to you on Telegram from a colleague, then a thank you for your answer, then a feedback file. You respond to all of this, but don’t forget what you were doing before you responded – checking the RC settings. Working long hours in frequent switching mode is detrimental. And we have proof.

Multitasking eats up to 40% of work time

Sociologists and psychologists have been studying the topic for over 20 years. We’ve gathered for you some of the most interesting studies that tell you what damage multitasking can do to cognitive abilities.

The performance of multitaskers is worse across the board. That’s the sad conclusion reached by several Stanford University researchers. They tested 100 students (so-called media multitaskers – those who regularly switch to the media while working) and came to the conclusion that their ability to memorize, structure information, speed of switching is worse than that of “single-taskers”. One of the researchers admits: “We looked for what they (multitaskers) were better at, but didn’t find it.”

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The main distracting factor in this study is smartphones, tablets and other devices and all the activities associated with them: listening to music, watching videos, reading new messages in messengers, viewing the social media feed, etc.

Multitasking can change the structure of the brain. The University of Sussex has found that people who are frequently and long distracted by multimedia devices during their lives have less gray matter density at the front of the cerebral cortex. This is already more serious than just problems with assimilation of information. This conclusion was reached after a detailed MRI study of 75 adults who frequently interact with multimedia devices such as smartphones, computers, televisions, and print media. Moreover, because this area of the brain is responsible for empathy and emotional control, the study found a link between multimedia multitasking and emotional and mental problems: anxiety and depression.

Multitasking increases the risk of errors and takes up to 40% of your time. These are the main findings of a series of studies by the American Psychological Association. Since the 1990s they have been studying the mechanisms of attention switching and trying to understand the price we pay for frequent switching. Many interesting things have been discovered as a result of the tests. For example, the following:

 

  • the switching process consists of 2 stages: goal shifting (“I will no longer perform this task, but will start this one”) and rule activation (“I turn off the rules for the first task and turn on the rules for the second”);
  • changing stages takes on average a few tenths of a second. Fatigue from frequent switching increases the transition time between tasks;
  • with frequent switching this time can reach 40% of a person’s productive time;
  • frequent switching increases the number of errors.

 

Multitasking can affect IQ (I guess). The resounding conclusion that multitasking lowers IQ by 10 points was made by Glenn Wilson in his Infomania study for Hewlett-Packard. It made a lot of noise in 2010, in part because there were only 8 test subjects who were employees of the company. They were tested twice: under normal quiet conditions and under “noisy” conditions when they were distracted by phone calls and emails (“noisy” conditions). Stress levels and blood pressure were measured. It was found that IQ dropped from an average of 143.38 to 132.75. This study can hardly be considered absolutely reliable due to the small number of participants, but the hypothesis is interesting and, in our opinion, worth further investigation.

If it’s that bad, why does multitasking exist?

Employers think it’s profitable. Employees may still be required to switch between tasks frequently.

This happens if the specifics of the position involve prompt responses through all channels, or if the employer wants to give as much work as possible to one person. By the way, hh.ru wrote a good article about the illusion of multitasking and how to behave correctly if you need to work in such a mode.

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“The Dopamine Needle. The connection between dopamine and multitasking has been investigated by many. In all cases, the conclusion is the same: people continue to multitask in spite of its negative consequences thanks to dopamine addiction. Completing any task produces the hormone dopamine, which is responsible for pleasure. The brain wants to get it as often as possible, so it tends to complete tasks regardless of their size or complexity. So, for example, checking your mail or flipping through the feed – these are also tasks. Psychologist and scientist Daniel Levitin writes in his article, “Multitasking creates a feedback loop of dopamine addiction, rewarding the brain for losing attention and constantly seeking outside stimulation.”

Freelancers often can’t do otherwise. We brought this point out separately because the number of sole proprietors, self-employed and freelancers in IT and marketing is very large, and not all of them know how to effectively manage a gigantic stream of heterogeneous tasks. Business or freelancing is a one-man control of all areas of the business in general, especially in the initial stages. Writing ads, assembling SN, calling the contractor, checking the work done, giving feedback, compiling CP for a potential client, answering questions on WhatsApp… All these tasks require a different set of skills. Unfortunately, many people get frustrated with their own business or freelancing in part because of burnout caused by long and frequent switch-overs.

2% of people are actually capable of multitasking. Surprising, huh? After all the horror we described in the experiments, let us tell you that scientists have found lucky people who are actually effective at multitasking. Truth be told, there are no more than 2% of them. Many of you are probably thinking right now, “Oh! I’m definitely in that two percent because I juggle tasks masterfully every day.” Not likely. Statistically, such people need multitasking the least in life. A very interesting article about such “masters of multitasking” describes just some superpeople whose productivity when adding new tasks is not only not reduced, but increased.

How do you know you’re not among the 2%?

Perhaps if you’re experiencing these feelings and falling into these situations, you should reduce the amount of switching in your work:

  • notice that you are making more mistakes as the number of switches increases;
  • You notice that you make more mistakes with more switching; you notice that your memory of information gets worse;
  • Sometimes you feel that you have done very few tasks on your list, even though you have been working all day and are tired;
  • you notice that more often you “slow down” and “hang up” when switching;
  • After you have completed one task for a long time (30 minutes or more) you cannot start the next one;
  • you find it difficult to concentrate on one task for a long time; you constantly want to be distracted;
  • Feel fatigued and apathetic at the end of a day full of switching.

Eliminate frequent switching step by step

These tips can help if a person has the emotional resources to rebuild the work system. If, however, multitasking has already caused severe stress or burnout, the recommendations may not help and it is better to immediately contact a psychologist.

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Step 1: Identify frequent switching situations and distractions. This is important so you can target them in Steps 3 and 4.

For example:

  • At the end of the day, due to fatigue, I am often distracted by Instagram;
  • before a difficult task that I’m scared to start, I go out for tea and watch YouTube videos;
  • I always respond to customer messages within 10 minutes, this is the rule set by my supervisor;
  • because of a few mistakes in the past where I’ve missed messages, I’m constantly checking messenger.

 

Step 2: Determine peak efficiency times. Some people can complete half of all tasks in the morning, when they are awake and full of energy. Others are most productive in the afternoon. And others enjoy evening work altogether. Determine which hours of the day are most productive for you, and plan the largest and most complex tasks for them.

Step 3: Structure your tasks and plan your time. A lot of analytical work is done in this step:

  • large and complex tasks are identified, divided into understandable parts;
  • small, simple and routine tasks are identified;
  • tasks which can be abandoned or delegated are identified;
  • tasks are roughly distributed by time of execution, taking into account the time of peak efficiency and the total period of active work.

You can choose the system of planning and recording tasks that suits you best, and also take the time-management methods and techniques you like into your arsenal.

When planning, it is extremely important to consider times of activity and peak productivity. This means that, for example, in the evening, if you are not very active at this time, you need to leave the smallest and simplest tasks.

On our part, we can help reduce the level of multitasking for those who are engaged in contextual and targeting advertising.

Step 4: Agree with those around you. Even if your scheduling system is perfect, it won’t help without building boundaries in communication with those around you. For example, if you are constantly distracted by questions from colleagues, agree that you can only answer at specific half-hour intervals during the day or not at all. Discuss with your supervisor why and why you are restructuring your work system and how he or she can help you with this. Notify clients that you will be answering during the workday, not within 10 minutes. Most people respond normally to such polite boundary setting.

Step 5: Monitor and adjust your work activity. You may not be able to achieve success right away, and that’s okay. There’s bound to be someone texting 20 posts a day and demanding a response, and fatigue can suddenly interrupt any activity and pull you into a publique with kitties. We recommend not getting frustrated, but to analyze and adjust your new system of work, gradually and methodically bringing the number of switches to the optimal number.

How do you feel about multitasking? Do you have any of your own great tips that you’d like to share?

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