The myth of multitasking

Multitasking has become the Holy Grail of our modern societies. Why do just one thing when you can do two or three in parallel? Multitasking is everywhere, especially in the workplace, where it is a common criterion to assess employees’ performance. Corporate superheroes are meant to juggle with contemporaneous tasks; they can attend a meeting while answering emails on their smartphones and scribbling notes for tomorrow’s business plan discussion. Their superpower: ubiquity, or being in multiple places doing multiple things at the same time.

The emperor isn’t wearing anything at all

Let’s now debunk that myth. Multitaskers would like to believe that they are everywhere but the truth is that they are actually nowhere at all. Multitasking is just a pretentious cover name for attention disorder. Having the attention span of a dragonfly isn’t being super-productive.

So here are a few hard facts to have in mind:

  1. Multitasking makes you stupid. A famous study conducted for Hewlett Packard in 2005 by TNS showed that people multitasking experience temporary IQ loss of 10 points, more than double the drop observed in studies of cannabis smokers.
  2. Multitasking doesn’t enhance your productivity, it kills it. When you are interrupted by an email or a call in the middle of a task, it takes energy and time to get your focus back, 23 minutes on average according to this University of California, Irvine research. Check out also this infographic on the high cost of multitasking.
  3. Actually, multitasking doesn’t exist. The term “multitasking” comes from the computer engineering industry. It refers to the “apparent ability of a microprocessor to process multiple tasks simultaneously”. It involves time-sharing the processor, only one task at a time, with a quick rotation. Our brains are not wired to multitask either. When we believe we are doing two things at the same time, we are in fact alternating between both. It’s micro-tasking, not multitasking.
multitasking image

What you can do about multitasking

Over with the theory now! Let’s look at concrete steps one can take to stop being a multitasking sacrificial victim.

  1. Don’t read emails all the time. This is one of my favorite tips by Tim Ferriss in The Four-Hour Workweek. If you read your emails as they reach your inbox, you’ll clutter your day with dozens of micro-interruptions and will never get into a smooth productivity stride. Stop believing that answering emails like playing ping pong makes you a king of efficiency. It means instead you’re idle or easily distracted. Tim Ferriss pushes it to once a week! Feel free to start with two or three batches per day. If you’re afraid of missing a life-or-death email from your boss, you can compromise and check headlines / senders’ name more regularly. This applies not only to emails but also to digital junk in general. Apps like Freedom can help you block digital distractions.
  2. Do things by batches. Actually, what we just said for emails applies to everything. Focus on one thing at a time and deal with it without interruptions (this is called time boxing). Do it steadily for 25 minutes, then take a 3- to 5-minute break to rest your brain -grab a banana, have a chat, drink water, relax- and you’re good to go again. This is a time management method called the Pomodoro technique. You have plenty of apps available if you want to try it out (iPhone or Android).
  3. Do different things, not at the same time. We’re not saying you shouldn’t be involved in multiple activities. On the contrary, we believe that having various hobbies / personal goals is essential to building a rich and balanced life. Just keep your focus, involve yourself fully, one thing at a time. It’s a matter of tempo. Your brain feels saturated with all the work you’ve done today? Go for a run, or meditate, then get back to it refreshed. Optimize your time by assembling your activity bricks wisely (blog post on that specific topic coming soon).
  4. Give people your full attention. When you multitask while interacting with someone else, you send them a strong message that you are not focused on what they are telling you. They will feel disrespected; they may disengage, and will not open up. You will end up losing their trust and/or interest.
  5. Don’t eat at your desk. This one is a personal one! Despite spending years working in finance in the City of London, I could never understand why someone would try to eat and work at the same time. You’re going to do poor work, you’re not going to enjoy your food or the mental benefits of a lunch break reboot, and you will grease your keyboard – gross!
  6. The exceptions that prove the rule. If two activities don’t clash and don’t tap into the same resources, feel free to do them together! Personally, I love to sing while driving and watch movies while cycling on my home trainer.

That’s it for now. We hope you enjoyed this post in one go without checking your Facebook page! If you struggle with some of the tips, if you have other tips to share with the community, or if there are similar topics you’d like us to discuss in another blog post, just let us know – we’ll be happy to help.

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