The Multitasking Misnomer

The Multitasking Misnomer

Margaret Pagel

June 30, 2015

What do you mean I can’t multitask? I can multitask—just ask me! I think I’ve perfected the art form. Like other expert multi-taskers, I got started early.

For my first trick, I learned to walk, talk, and hold onto my toys all at once. And as I got older, I just kept adding new things. Tying my shoes, packing my lunch, riding my bicycle—if you practice something enough, it becomes so routine that you can repeat the process without even thinking about it. That lets you focus on other tasks, at which point you just keep practicing those until they become routine, too. These days, I can walk, talk, read text messages, and chew bubblegum without missing my multiple street turns on my walk home. I can check emails, converse over Gchat, and attend a meeting all at the same time. It’s sort of like sleepwalking—there are certain tasks you’ve done so many times that you can repeat them without using any real thought.

That is the important part, because our brains have a limited capacity for devoting attention. When we learn to multitask, we’re not training ourselves to focus on more things at once, we’re just teaching ourselves to do things without requiring our focus.

But recently, that’s become unsettling for me. When I’m working, I want to be more than just sleepwalking through my job. I want to be present and engaged with my coworkers and clients. So I started reading more about multitasking, hoping to learn how I could become even better at it, myself included.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found much help. Instead, I’ve found that multitasking is a behavioral problem, and nobody is good at it.

Recent research by a team of psychologists1 has shown that multitasking is governed by two different mental processes. There’s one process that tells your brain where to direct its attention, and another process that loads your brain with the rules and context required to perform that task.

What this means is that multitasking is something of a misnomer. While your mouth and limbs might appear to be acting toward different goals simultaneously, your brain needs to switch back and forth from one to the others as they require your attention. When I stop in the middle of a sentence to read a Gchat, my brain has to switch its whole mental model. If I decide the message isn’t too urgent, my entire model has to switch back to the context of my email before I can resume. When my phone buzzes, I can either look at who’s calling, or convince myself that a text message can wait until after I finish my email—either way, it’s a conscious decision.

But this is what I’m good at! Making these micro decisions repeatedly throughout the day is exactly what makes me such a proficient multitasker! I hardly even notice those little interruptions!

However, even though I feel as though I’m just rolling along, researchers in this same study were able to demonstrate that I’m not. This micro-switching comes with a cost. Every time your brain needs to redirect its attention and load up a new set of rules and contexts (was that buzzing a phone call, or just a text message?), your attention is subject to a latency period. This latency period might be just a few tenths of a second, so you hardly notice it. But over the course of the day, it adds up.

It turns out that while I might be good at multitasking, multitasking itself is not very good for me. Being an efficient multitasker means you are accepting a baseline of inefficiency in individual tasks. Multitasking is a trap, and just about everyone I know falls for it.

In an interview on NPR2, Clifford Naas explained how multitasking can truly take over your life. Throughout his research, he has found that those who think they’re the best at multitasking have a difficult time not multi-tasking. “They’ve developed habits of the mind that make it impossible for them to be laser-focused,” he said. “They’re suckers for irrelevancy; they just can’t keep on task.” Wow, now that’s a bitter pill to swallow!

But it’s not hopeless. If we understand these mental processes of shifting goals and loading separate contexts, then we can leverage that information to overcome these habits.

We need to make a conscious effort to break from this habit of multitasking. In the same interview, Naas proposed a solution that I’m going to begin trying out for myself. He suggested that if you know that there’s a separate brain process that shifts your focus before loading up all of the necessary context, you can use that to your benefit. Use the anticipatory knowledge of goal switching to fend off the desire to multitask. Instead of switching tasks impulsively, refuse to switch tasks unless you can commit a full 20 minute chunk to the task. If you receive an email, wait to read it until you can spend a full 20 minutes on reading and replying to emails.

At the time I’m writing this post, I have over 500 unread emails in my inbox. I feel like I’m constantly swimming in replies. It can definitely feel overwhelming.

But I’m going to give this strategy a try. Instead of answering emails in every spare moment I can gather, I’m going to dedicate regular chunks of 20 minutes just to reading and replying to emails. Instead of letting my daily obligations compete with each other, I’m going to make a conscious effort to dedicate this same attention to every item on my To Do list. Whether or not I begin to eat away at my inbox in a more effective way, I know that I will be more focused and more present while performing the other tasks on my To Do list.

I encourage you to do the same thing, and send me a Tweet if you find something that helps!

1 "Multitasking: A Few Reasons Why Multitasking Reduces Productivity," by Kendra Cherry.

2 The Myth of Multitasking.