The Truth About Multitasking — And What to Do Instead
How to treat your attention like the superpower it is.
By Marina Khidekel, Head of Content Development at Thrive Global
It’s a normal morning at work. You’re on a conference call with your team—at the same time you’re also answering “urgent” emails. You take a quick moment to respond to a text from your partner checking on dinner plans. You’re also streaming news at low volume on the TV hanging on the wall and you have an eye on the stock market. A colleague pings you, looking for advice on a matter that needs to be handled—right now! You handle it—problem solved. A sip of coffee and you remember that you’re still in a team meeting, and you quickly weigh in. Two more emails arrive and you reply to them before they can add to your inbox. Then a Slack notification informs you of a critical project update. And so it goes. . . .
If this kind of intensely frenetic scenario sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Multitasking has become our de facto approach to work and life. Our ability to take on many tasks at once is often seen as positive, even commendable. And doing this is also unavoidable, largely because giving our full attention to anything—or anyone—is becoming more and more difficult in our hyperconnected world that has so many competing demands for our time and attention.
There’s just one problem: Multitasking doesn’t work. In this chapter, we dig into the myth of multitasking and explore how focusing and prioritizing well can lead to a more meaningful, productive, and rewarding way of working and living. We also hear from people from all walks of life who are harnessing the extraordinary power of focus.
We look not only at the science but also ancient wisdom about giving our attention to what really matters. The Stoics in particular, including Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca, remind us of how we tend to fill up our time with distractions, and instead how valuable it is to live in the moment.
MULTITASKING IS A MYTH
The widely held belief that we can multitask without sacrificing the quality of our attention is a fallacy. The brain simply can’t fully focus when it’s engaged in what’s known as fragmented work. We often think we are being super productive, checking things off, and maximizing productivity. But that’s not what’s really happening. A report published in the American Psychological Society’s Journal of Experimental Psychology found that multitasking can cause productivity to drop as much as 40 percent.
This is even more true for those who think they’re particularly good at multitasking. In one 2012 study, David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah, found that the better people thought they were at multitasking, the more likely their performance was subpar. While Strayer identified a tiny minority of outliers he calls supertaskers, most of us pay a price when we try to focus on more than one thing at a time.
That’s because interrupted work comes at a cost. As researchers from the University of California, Irvine, and the Institute of Psychology at Humboldt University in Berlin found, interruptions lead to “more stress, higher frustration, time pressure and effort.” Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT, puts it this way: “When we toggle between tasks, the process often feels seamless, but in reality, it requires a series of small shifts.” Each small shift results in a cognitive cost. For example, every time you switch between responding to emails and writing an important paper, you’re draining precious brain resources and energy just to get back to where you started. Miller’s advice is to avoid multitasking because “it ruins productivity, causes mistakes, and impedes creative thought. . . . As humans, we have a very limited capacity for simultaneous thought, we can only hold a little bit of information in the mind at any single moment.”
The flow of interruptions and distractions can be relentless, but when you get out in front of it, you can take control of your time and give your attention to what is most important.
People were thinking about the value of attention long before email and iPhones came along. For the Stoics, it was about focusing on what we can control, including our attention and our reactions. There are so many things we all strive to get done, but to save time—and energy and attention—it pays to stop worrying about everything you can’t change or do anything about. That includes many of those “urgent” questions or distractions draining our energy. It means being disciplined with your time. It means paying attention, which helps you to focus.
There are always going to be interruptions demanding our attention. In fact, 28 percent of the average workday is consumed by interruptions and the resulting recovery time. Those endless distractions drain our energy, and they can drain us to such an extent that it can be difficult for us to give our undivided attention to anything at all.
In Chapter 2 and elsewhere throughout this book we explore the many ways our overdependence on technology can hinder our ability to thrive. And as anyone with a phone knows, our ubiquitous screens are especially adept at sapping our attention. Multitasking with multiple devices has been shown to actually shrink our brains. The gray matter in an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is responsible for information processing, withers away. While we’ve been conditioned to believe we can’t go even a few minutes without our phones, and that multitasking is our ticket to unlocking our superhuman productivity, it’s time we understand just how self-defeating these beliefs can be.
What’s fascinating is that multitasking also affects how we communicate and connect with others. We know our devices can be distracting when we’re trying to talk to someone, but what’s amazing is how our screens can affect us even when we’re not using them. In a study by researchers at the University of Essex in the UK, participants were divided into couples and asked to talk. Half the conversations took place with a phone in the room. “The mere presence of mobile phones inhibited the development of interpersonal closeness and trust,” the study contended, “and reduced the extent to which individuals felt empathy and understanding from their partners.”
A STRATEGIC START TO THE DAY
What happens in those first few hours after we wake has a substantial impact on the rest of our day. Those activities and events set the tone for everything to come. When you wake up, instead of reflexively starting your day by checking your messages, take a minute or so to breathe deeply. That breathing space can be expansive.
Even before you put your mind to work on the tasks of the day, remember to focus on yourself, to set the tone for the day in a positive way. That might mean meditating, working out, walking the dog, doing some stretching, or just drinking a cup of coffee in silence. The important thing to remember is that any morning routine you implement needs to be one that works well for you, according to how your mind and body function.
It’s no surprise that many successful leaders take an inten- tional approach to how they start their day. According to Virgin Group chair Richard Branson, waking up early is a key to focus and productivity: “Like keeping a positive outlook, or keeping fit, waking up early is a habit, which you must work on to maintain . . .” he wrote in a blog. “I have learned that if I rise early I can achieve so much more in a day, and therefore in life.”
For Oprah, the day starts with gratitude. “I wake up in the morning, and the first thing I say is ‘thank you.’ Even before I’m awake, even before my eyes are fully open. I say ‘thank you.’ I can feel the gratitude, like, ‘I’m still here. I’m in a body. Thank you for that.’”
Once you’ve invested some time into nurturing your well-being, you can move on to thinking about your goals for the day. Here’s one Microstep to try: simply write down your priorities for the day. Taking even a small amount of time to decide what’s important and what’s not can be key in reducing stress and improving productivity throughout the day. Early morning is also a good time for writing down your intentions that will support you in focusing on more ambitious, long-term projects as well.
YOUR ATTENTION IS A SUPERPOWER
Modern life has been structured so that we live in an almost permanent state of fight-or-flight. The demands and distractions just keep coming: another dozen emails calling out for a response, notifications and updates lighting up our phones, even well-intended interruptions that take our attention away from our priorities. According to a University of California, Irvine, study, it takes twenty-five minutes for us to return to our prior level of focus after being interrupted. Twenty-five minutes! We can’t wave a magic wand and make it all disappear— nor would we necessarily want to—but by using Microsteps we can begin to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of our ever-expanding to-do lists.
When we truly focus, we reassert control over our time. Here’s a Microstep to start with that really is too small to fail. If there’s something you need to do that will only take you two minutes, do it immediately. Finishing a quick task is often simpler than reviewing it, putting it in your calendar, and returning to it later.
It’s all part of building your attention “muscle.” Like any other muscle, our attention muscle needs to be exercised on a regular basis, says Thomas Oppong, founder of AllTopStartups and author of Working in the Gig Economy. Oppong notes that “while insignificant tasks requiring minimal cognitive effort can be performed in parallel, truly meaningful work requires a much more intense level of focus.
His suggestion: “Schedule blank space for intentional thinking to replenish your store of attention. Protect your time and manage your time like an investment portfolio.” This might mean you’ll disappoint others, many of whom believe their issue is worthy of your limited time. The truth is you can’t meet every request from friends, family, and colleagues. As Oppong also advises, “Choose to be less reactive and more intentional about where you invest your attention. . . . Own your attention. A lack of ownership of attention can only make you waste precious time.”
One way to own your attention is speaking up about it. Whether you’re in an office, at home, or somewhere else, let others know that you are going into Do Not Disturb mode. It’s a small way to protect your attention and your time—with fewer interruptions, you’ll be better able to fully devote yourself to your project.
One of the most talked about documentaries in 2020 was The Social Dilemma. It confronted some of the more troubling aspects of social media giants including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The film features interviews with a range of experts, including many Silicon Valley insiders who helped create the monsters they are now warning about. As they see it, by mining data and manipulating human behavior, these tech platforms have turned our attention into one of the most valuable—and exploitable—commodities on the planet, with implications on everything from the future of democracy to our collective mental health.
One of the most trenchant critics is Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist who founded the group Time Well Spent to raise awareness about how our society is being “hijacked” by technology. As Harris points out, our addiction to our devices is by design. Behind those friendly, inviting icons we love so much is an incredible amount of increasingly sophisticated science. “The best way to get people’s attention is to know how someone’s mind works,” says Harris. The behavioral scientists, neuroscientists, and computer scientists on the other side of our screens know we like the feeling of control. But they also want us to cede control of our attention. And so we’re given the illusion of control. “By shaping the menus we pick from, technology hijacks the way we perceive our choices and replaces them with new ones,” writes Harris. “But the closer we pay attention to the options we’re given, the more we’ll notice when they don’t actually align with our true needs.”
Since phone notifications are such frequent intruders on our attention, one of Harris’s recommendations is to arrange to receive notifications only from people, not machines. Harris set his phone to ping him only from WhatsApp, iMessage, and other messaging services—instances where actual humans are on the other side requesting his attention. Any notifications coming from machines are turned off.
When we do this, a larger dishabituation happens. Minimizing all the buzzes “helps our mind get back control of itself,” Harris says, since the more your phone buzzes, the more you’ll expect it to buzz. “The less frequently our pocket’s buzzing, the less our mind starts to feel those phantom buzzes in our pocket, and the calmer we get,” he says. “Hopefully that helps you get back some control of your attention.”
Adapted from “Your Time to Thrive: End Burnout, Increase Well-being, and Unlock Your Full Potential with the New Science of Microsteps,” by Marina Khidekel and the editors of Thrive Global.