You may think that you can successfully juggle several tasks. In fact you may believe that you have to multitask in order to get your work done in a reasonable time. Bad luck – the weight of research is against you, and shows that trying to multitask means that you will take longer to deal with your workload, make far more mistakes, and probably forget some of your tasks altogether.
The term ‘multitasking’ didn’t even exist before 1965, and even then it was coined to describe the capabilities of a new computer system. It was only extended to humans as a metaphor – a metaphor doesn’t work that well, since what you are really doing when you multitask is switching between one or at most two tasks at a time. Each time you restart and refocus on a different task, you lose time and expend effort. There’s also a further processing overhead of deciding which task of many to prioritise.
What happens in your brain when you try to do several things at once? French neuroscientists Etienne Koechlin and Sylvain Charron scanned the brains of their test subjects using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they performed first a single task, then two tasks simultaneously.
Whenever you pay attention to something, an area of your brain called the prefrontal cortex ‘lights up’. This area focuses your attention on a goal, and coordinates other brain systems in achieving the task. In the study, the subjects used both sides of the prefrontal cortex when they were focused on just one task. As soon as they had to deal with a second task, they split the activity between the two halves of their brain, with one side of the prefrontal cortex handling one task and the other side independently focusing on the other task.
When a third task was added, their error rate tripled, and they also forgot to do one of the tasks. You may have experienced similar errors and omissions yourself when trying to switch between several tasks at once.
Are you convinced yet? Let’s take a look at some other research findings:
- Heavy multitaskers are poor judges of their own ability. A study at the University of Utah found that the people who are most likely to multitask think they are better than average at it, whereas they are no better than average and often worse.
- Multitasking leads to stress and anxiety. A study by the University of California found that after only 20 minutes of interrupted performance, people reported greater stress, effort and workload – even if the interruptions were self-generated rather than coming from outside.
- Multitasking gets in the way of learning. A study at UCLA found that multitasking while trying to learn new information meant that the information is stored by different and less effective systems in the brain than information learned when you are concentrating, making it harder to recall the information when you need it.
How to save yourself from multitasking – the Pomodoro Technique
So what can you do to combat the lure of multitasking, and all those tempting self-interruptions like checking your emails and looking at cat videos on the web? One very effective method is called the ‘Pomodoro technique’ (yes, it’s one of those annoying technique names that give no clue as to what the technique is about – I think it’s derived from those novelty kitchen timers that are shaped like a tomato).
The idea is that you focus on one task at a time, for no longer than 25 minutes. I have been trying this technique out while I wrote this article in 25-minute bursts using an online timer, and I can report that it works!
It’s amazing how much you can get done in 25 minutes, and also how long that 25 minute time period feels. The act of setting a timer did seem to stop me checking my emails and getting distracted like I normally would.
For the record, the article took two and a half 25-minute blocks to write – it would have been just two blocks if I hadn’t been led into research article dead-ends by some lazy science writers making claims not backed up by the research.
If you need to focus and become more productive, you may find my Achieve Your Goals self-hypnosis audio useful – download it here.
Tomato timer image by Michael Mayer on Flickr