How many tabs do you have open right now? I just counted: I have 11 open.
Many people think multitasking is a valuable skill, but I'd disagree, particularly with knowledge work (e.g., teaching, writing, coding). I think multitasking is a trap we fall into, as abundant media and information bombard us from all angles.- A parent cleaning the kitchen while wearing their baby on their chest would agree with me that multitasking is a helpful, necessary skill.
But when we're engaged in a cognitively demanding task like serious communication or problem-solving, switching focus to a different activity fragments our attention and has a negative effect.- Dr. Gloria Mark, professor of informatics, conducted a study revealing that knowledge workers have their task time-to-completion significantly reduced when interrupted.
And here's what communications professor Clifford Nass, who studied human behavior in the digital age, concluded:
People who multitask all the time can't filter out irrelevancy. They can't manage a working memory. They're chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand ... they're pretty much mental wrecks ... they just can't keep on task.
Does this mean, paradoxically, that the more we multitask, the worse we are at multitasking?
It's not easy, but I try to avoid multitasking. I'll close my email throughout the day. Sometimes I'll even turn off one of my computer monitors to dodge the temptation of clicking one of those browser tabs I have open. When I'm not fully engaged during 1:1 meetings, I'm doing a disservice to my co-workers. I think multitasking is the enemy of productivity. It's tiring, stressful.
In his book Stillness Is The Key, Ryan Holiday posed a question on being fully present that I keep in mind:
Who is so talented that they can afford to bring only part of themselves to bear on a problem or opportunity?
As much as possible, I try to get into the mode of singletasking where I concentrate my attention on just one thing, complete it, take a break, and then move on to the next item. I find that it boosts my creativity, and overall I accomplish more.
Recently I've been experimenting with a Distraction Log. Whenever I'm tempted to shift my attention or go down a rabbit hole, I write a note to review it later. In the same way that inputting an open task into a to-do app can mitigate the Zeigarnik effect—where incomplete tasks preoccupy the mind—a Distraction Log might help maintain focus on the single task at hand.
What's that single thing you'd want to complete this week to feel accomplished?