I’m sure you’ve experienced this many times, you’re in a meeting, someone is called on for input, and then they say “sorry, I was multitasking, can you repeat the question?”. Have you ever gone to the address bar of your browser and then drawn a blank of what URL you were going to type in? How about getting ready to switch tasks and then suddenly realizing you have no idea what you were going to do?!
The elusive productivity tool we like to call multitasking supposedly makes us more efficient. But I have to wonder, is this really making us more effective? And more importantly, what is it doing to our brains?
By engaging in multitasking, we effectively treat attention as though it’s an unlimited resource. However in 1973 psychology Daniel Kahneman suggested that attention is a finite resource, and that attention can be “flexibly allocated as the human operator changes their allocation policy from moment to moment. Attention can be focused on one activity or can be divided between a number of activities”.
Eyal Ophir, the primary researcher on the Stanford Multitasking Project says that multi-tasking is a myth. When you think about it, we aren’t really doing many things at once. Instead, as Ophir says, “We task-switch. We just switch very quickly between tasks, and it feels like we’re multitasking.” What’s really being affected is our ability to focus. As we increase the number of tasks that we switch between, even when we aren’t working on that task, we are thinking about it. Ophir calls this “cognitive interference” and says:
“Every task you do competes for your mental resources, even once you think it’s no longer relevant. The more you do, the more you increase this competition. So that momentary interruption is still fighting for some of your mental resources even when you’d like to focus back on your main task. The more competing tasks you take on, the more interference you must overcome to fully dedicate yourself to what’s really important. What may be worse is that over time you may be training yourself NOT to focus. You teach yourself that something more exciting might be just around the corner – behind that notification, or the app on your mobile phone, or the email you haven’t checked.”
I’m sure you’ve had times where you’ve just felt overwhelmed by the volume of information to consume and tasks to do. I know I definitely have! So, in 2013 I’m trying to focus my mind more by doing a few key things.
First, I’m going to try and be more habitual with certain tasks. For example, only checking email at certain times or always writing blog posts in the evening. The idea here is that if you train your brain to expect things to happen at certain times, it will be easier to focus and you’ll minimize the amount of “cognitve interference”.
Second, every day I’m going to exercise my brain and do special games and challenges thanks to the awesome site I discovered called Lumosity. I discovered the site through one of their television ads and have been using it every day for about 2 weeks. Around lunch time each day, I spent no more than 10 minutes playing little brain exercise games like matching, math, word games, etc. It’s too early to say if I can subjectively say I feel more focused, so stay tuned!
Finally, and possibly most critical, is to focus more on trying to do so many things, and instead consciously try to mono-task more. I discovered this really short TED talk about the idea of monotasking that’s definitely worth watching. What if we have it all wrong? What if monotasking is really the way to get more one? What if focusing on a single thing is the key to success?
Paolo Cardini, proposes that maybe we should downgrade our mobile phones into the essence of their function. Our mobile phones are a huge source of great information, but also massive distraction. Check out his smartphone covers on Thingaverse that he hopes will help us rediscover our sense of adventure and focus.
I bet you’re wondering how I’ll measure this. Well, me too. I don’t have any scientific way I can do this. So, it’s going to have to be more subjective, so stay tuned for updates.