Get Focused

The science behind why multitasking is ruining your ability to get things done

Back Longreads Sep 5, 2017 By Jeff Wilser

Your job demands multitasking. Your boss’s job demands multitasking. Every job seems to demand multitasking. In Sacramento alone, job posts on using the keyword “multitask” include senior auditor, designer and “bottling room supervisor.” We demand multitasking from our receptionists to our CEOs.   

Yet, what if we’re doing it all wrong? What if instead of trying to do 37 things at once, we just try and do one thing at a time — what some productivity experts call either “mono-tasking,” “mono-focus” or “uni-tasking”— and do the job well?

“A lot of people say that multitasking keeps them alert and helps them avoid boredom. They’re confusing ‘multitasking’ with ‘having many projects,’” says Lisa Montanaro, a Sacramento-based productivity expert who also runs workshops at UC Davis and Sacramento State. “It makes a lot of sense to work on several projects. But working on several tasks at once doesn’t make sense. It’s like juggling a bunch of balls in the air, while also having a conversation on the phone and drafting an email. Your brain can’t do all of those tasks at once and do them well.”

This is more than just common sense. A growing body of research shows that when our brain is forced to scurry from task to task, switching from A to B to C to D then back to A, ad infinitum, it’s less effective than if the brain just stays locked on A. “‘Switching costs’ are real,” says Dr. John Olichney, a professor of neurology at UC Davis, referring to the extra energy it takes for the brain to toggle from one task to the next. “We have a limited neural capacity. When we start doing three things at once or overloading our immediate attention, we get into trouble.” He says that the brain is not a “magical organ,” but a physiological one. It accounts for just 2 percent of our body weight, but consumes 20 percent of the body’s calories. It works hard. And like the rest of our body, it can get tuckered out.  

Olichney’s team at UC Davis can measure the brain’s processing speed with an assessment called the Cognitive Event Related Potential, or CERP.  Imagine being given a series of auditory cues, like beep, beep, beep — and then an oddball like boop — then more beeps. Every time you hear a boop, your job is to press a button. That’s one single task. If you are simultaneously given a dual task, like looking at pictures and pressing a button when you see the color red, your CERP will suffer. This can cause you to make sloppy mistakes. Stanford professor Clifford Nass, a pioneer in multitasking research, saw this phenomenon play out when he studied multitaskers back in 2010. Nass concluded that “multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking,” including ignoring irrelevant information, organizing information in their minds and switching between tasks. Oof.

When we leave the academic world of beeps and boops, study after study suggests a real-world tax of multitasking. “It’s impossible to do two tasks at the same time without compromising each,” Montanaro says. “It takes your brain four times longer to process than if you had focused on each task separately.” A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that even a seemingly innocuous two-second distraction could double your amount of mistakes. A previous study from 2001 found that when we multitask, it takes our brains longer to solve math problems. A 2007 study examining the email habits of Microsoft employees found that when office workers responded to an email alert, they would stay in their email for 10 minutes, and then it took another 10-15 minutes (!!) for them to refocus.  

So, those tiny distractions can mushroom, even if you’re not aware of the extent to which they derail your focus. “Users spend more time than they realize responding to alerts,” conclude the authors of the Microsoft study, adding that when we have multiple windows visible on our screen, recovery time is even longer. (Key takeaway: If we have visual temptation, we’ll indulge in that temptation. Consider full-screen mode.) The authors also found that “27 percent of task suspensions resulted in more than two hours of time until resumption.” So one time out of four, responding to a single email is enough to kneecap your entire afternoon.

Not only is multitasking a drag on productivity, it stresses us out — literally. A 2014 study from the UC Irvine hooked up college students to heart-rate monitors, and found the more they switched between windows on their computers, the higher the levels of stress. “Multitasking contributes to that overwhelmed, stressed-out feeling because they’re doing so many things at once, so they feel scattered,” Montanaro says.  

Related: Dr. Daniel Rockers on Avoiding Stress at Work

These higher levels of stress can cause other downstream problems. “When the mind jumps from one thing to another, people can have problems sleeping,” says Dr. Daniel Rockers, a Sacramento-based psychologist. “If your mind is scattered at work for eight hours, do you think you’re going to just shut that off at home? Good luck.” Rockers says that the damage from our 9-to-5 multitasking is then exacerbated — or given rocket-fuel, really — by the multitasking on our smartphones. “The apps take advantage of this scatteredness. The apps know how to guide our attention. So our attention can be led around, mindlessly.” This leads to one of the biggest complaints he hears from his patients: “People are so damned stressed, they feel that they can’t shut their heads off.”

How to Mono-Focus

As with any other addiction, the first step is recognizing the problem. The next time you’re at work, Rockers recommends taking 30 minutes to count how many times you switch between tasks. Count every glance at your phone, check of your inbox and chat with coworkers. “Awareness is the foundational step towards change,” he says. Montanaro gives the same advice and says clients are floored to find themselves switching tasks as often as every three minutes. “They might be checking email and then all of a sudden realize that they forgot to call someone, and then lean over and pick up the phone. During the phone call, they start opening the mail and reading it, which makes them realize that they’re not really listening to the conversation on the phone.”

Related: Mono-Tize Your Life – Tips on How to Mono-Focus

Once you tally up your distractions, the next step is to create an environment — or process — that helps control your zig-zagging focus. “Set aside a few hours that are blocked from distractions,” says Olichney, the neurologist at UC Davis. “Work for four hours that are undistracted, and then do all the multitasking and email in the other half of the day. That’s better than juggling it all day, which leads to fatigue.”

The antidote to mindless switching, after all, is mindful focus. You don’t need to meditate or slip into a monk-like trance to reap the benefits. “Just focus on your breathing,” Rockers says. “It’s pretty easy to mock this, but it actually does work.” By monitoring muscle tension, breathing and heart rate variability (proxy for overall stress levels), Rockers sees, in real time, as his patients take deeper breaths and focus on a single thing, their stress levels are quantifiably lower. You don’t need to be in a therapist’s office to feel this in action: At your laptop you can inhale, take a few deep breaths and focus on just one thing.

Or if that feels too new-agey, Montanaro has a more nuts-and-bolts solution. She recommends the Pomodoro Technique, which is, essentially, the office version of high intensity interval training at the gym. Here’s how it works: Do one highly-focused thing for 25 minutes. During that time, do not email, call, text or peek at Twitter. Then you get a five-minute break. Then 25 minutes of sustained focus, followed by a five-minute break. Rinse and repeat. Soon you’ll be done.

“Many people may be thinking, ‘25 minutes? How easy!’ And then they try it and realize that this 25 minutes of highly-focused work means that you can’t multitask or task switch,” Montanaro says. “Now they realize how difficult it is, and it brings so much awareness to the fact that they probably weren’t conducting highly-focused work sessions in the past.”

It helps to remove the temptations. When I’m in writing-mode, I use a program called Freedom to sever my laptop from the internet, then I take my iPhone and banish it from the room, even stowing it in a locker. In psychiatry this is known as a “Ulysses pact,” inspired by how Ulysses strapped himself to the mast so he wouldn’t be tempted by the sirens.  

Tools and apps can help you mono-focus. I switched to a to-do list manager called Things, which offers a view that only shows you the item at the top of your list (and not the 37 additional tasks jockeying for your attention). Plenty of other task managers provide the same interface. The point is that you want a list that’s sequential, allowing you to focus on the item that’s at the very top, right now, and nothing else.

Leadership coach Peter Bregman tried mono-focusing for a week, and found he actually worked faster to avoid boredom. Distractions like email and Twitter are shiny baubles of interest. When we remove these, we lose patience for doing the same thing and this can be exploited. “Use your loss of patience to your advantage. Create unrealistically short deadlines. Cut all meetings in half. Give yourself a third of the time you think you need to accomplish something,” he writes in Harvard Business Review. “There’s nothing like a deadline to keep things moving.”

Obviously, all of this has enormous potential benefits to a company. Productive employees make for a productive firm. “It certainly can help a company’s bottom line because everyone is more productive,” Montanaro says, “but looking at this a bit more creatively, employees will be a lot more focused, so you’re getting a better use of their brain power. And they’ll be a lot happier. So if a company is really concerned with increasing ROI, then mono-focusing makes a lot of sense.”

There’s one last question worth considering:

How many times did you do something else while you read this article? (Be honest.) Distractions can sneak up on you. Every time you switched focus, your brain got a little woozier — even if you can’t feel it. Now extrapolate that over an entire workday, then a week, then a month, then a year. This is why Olichney calls multitasking “the plague of our era.” Thankfully, the solution is simple: Do more by doing less.