This is the first post in my new ‘Productivity Hacks Series – Things I wish someone had told me a decade ago’. Hindsight is 20-20. There are many things I wish my younger self knew. For instance, I wish someone had told me about the myths and truths about Multitasking.
“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”Eleanor Roosevelt.
I have spent countless hours of my life on well-intentioned but misguided productivity experiments. Attempting to multitask – a lot – was one of them. Not surprisingly, these trials weren’t yielding the expected results.
To find out where I went wrong, I turned to scientific literature and studies on multitasking. What I learnt changed my life. Here are some key myths and truths about multitasking and lessons I learnt.
Start with an experiment – Seeing is believing
Indulge me for a few minutes. Get a pen, a few blank papers and a phone with a stopwatch/timer app and find a quiet place. I have a little experiment for you. Perform the tasks below at a comfortable pace. No need to rush!
Tasks A and B
- Task A: Start your stopwatch and do the following: On a blank sheet of paper, write down your favorite song lyrics or directions to your favorite restaurant from your home. (This experiment works best if you pick something that takes you at least 5 minutes to do). Stop the watch and note the time taken.
- Task B: Take a second blank sheet of paper. Reset the stopwatch and start again. This time write down numbers 200 to 1 in descending order. When you’re done, stop the watch and note the time taken.
Add up A + B to get the total time taken. Feel free to take a break, if needed.
- When ready to resume, take another blank sheet of paper. I prefer to use the Timer feature on the phone instead of the stopwatch for this part. Set the timer to 30 seconds. Start writing down the lyrics to the same song or directions to the same restaurant that you did in (A) above. When the timer ends, restart it right away for another 30 seconds, but this time write down the number sequence in descending order starting from 200 (B). Keep alternating every 30 seconds between the lyrics/directions and number sequence until you complete both the lyrics/directions and the descending number series. Add up the total time taken.
Compare the time for A+B to time taken for C (assuming you finished Task C and didn’t tear up all your papers already). And…Drum roll!
You just learnt really valuable lessons on the Myths and Truths about Multitasking. I’ll explain what these mean soon. First, some definitions.
- Unitasking (Serial processing): processing one task at a time (Tasks A and B above)
- Multitasking (Parallel processing): processing more than one task simultaneously.
- Task Switching: processing more than one task not simultaneously but alternating rapidly between tasks. Task C in the example above. Task Switching is often mistaken as multitasking.
Myths and Truths about Multitasking – Cognitive multitasking
Both tasks in the experiment above (writing out lyrics and writing down the number sequence) involve some degree of thinking (cognition), so we’ll refer to these as cognitive tasks. We’ll discuss other sorts of tasks later.
Myth 1 – Cognitive multitasking is possible
Read the definition of multitasking above. It is impossible to think about the lyrics to a song and a number sequence at EXACTLY the same time.
Cognitive task switching is possible. While cognitive multitasking is impossible, cognitive task switching is possible, albeit at a significant cost. Some of these costs/drawbacks to task switching are below:
- Switching from one task to another takes time. Our brain exercises ‘executive control’. It determines which resources to allocate to each task and for how long. You make the brain work harder by asking it to switch between tasks. This act of determining which task to perform, in itself, takes up time.
- By the time you start thinking about the number sequence, a little part of your brain is still thinking about song lyrics. This is called residual attention. On the flip side, knowing what you need to do next provides you a stimulus preview causing a part of your brain to start thinking prematurely about the number sequence even while you are still writing out the song lyrics.
- It is more stressful to switch tasks than to stay focused on one. If you did this experiment, you’d have felt it. Also, forced task switching (under a deadline) is much harder than voluntary/rewarding task switching (scrolling through an Insta feed)!
- Leaving a task midway means you need to remember where you left off. Although your brain has the capacity to ‘bookmark’, it will still take some effort to retrieve the bookmark so you can resume at that point.
- The example in the above experiment was of two rather simple tasks. The degree of task switching difficulty increases exponentially when the task complexity or rules increase. For instance, instead of simply writing a decreasing number sequence, if I had asked you to write a decreasing number sequence and also to multiply each even number in the sequence by 2. This would take longer both when unitasking and task switching, but it would be much harder to do when task switching. I dare you to try it!
- The rate of errors is much higher when task switching rather than unitasking.
Are you convinced now that it’s better to focus on one cognitive task at a time? It is far easier and less of a strain to perform cognitive tasks in serial mode aka Unitask because Cognitive task switching comes at a significant cost.
Myths and Truths about Multitasking – making cognitive multitasking efficient
Still on the subject of cognitive tasks, is there any way at all to make cognitive multitasking or task switching as efficient as unitasking?
Myth 2 – Cognitive multitasking/ Cognitive task switching can be trained to be as efficient as unitasking
Well, not really. Cue sad face emoji!
If you’re reading this, I assume you have, like me, no more than one brain (although yours may well be much better equipped).
There are, unfortunately, inherent structural limitations to how our brains are wired and the amount of glucose/glycogen that the brain can process at any given amount of time. These play a role in how efficient task switching can be.
It is prudent to accept these constraints. Though, science is trying really hard to find a way out.
Though task switching cannot be as efficient as unitasking, it may be possible to make cognitive task switching less annoying.
With practice, task switching does get easier. But this means always pairing the same two tasks in the same order. Even, in the example above, since Task C is really a repetition of Tasks A and B, C is still easier to do because you have had some practice. It would take even longer if you did Task C first before A and B.
Age and working memory do play a part but not as much as millennials and Gen Zers would like to think!
Take intentional breaks but avoid switching back and forth between two cognitive tasks.
When working on hard problems, it can get tiresome to the brain to stay focused continuously over long periods of time. The recommendation then is to focus for a set duration, say 30 – 40 minutes, take a break and then go back to the hard problem. Remember, there is a world of difference between taking an intentional break versus constant task switching.
Myths and Truths about Multitasking – Multimodal multitasking
Learning the stuff above was enough to puncture my happy multitasking bubble, but I still had one burning question. Are we consigned to a life of simply doing one task at a time? Please, please, say it ain’t so. The Type A in me really wanted to know.
Cognitive multitasking is, as yet, unattainable. What about other types?
I scavenged around a whole bunch of research articles hoping to find some information that supports multitasking. And I did find something. Not quite the winner’s trophy but a consolation prize. I’ll take that. Beggars can’t be choosers.
This may not be news to you, but in addition to the thinking (cognition) brain, we have other parts of the brain that direct our other human parts to pick up sensory stimuli or perform motor functions. I’m referring to our eyes (visual), ears (audio), skin (tactile), arms and legs (motor functions).
Myth 3: It’s possible to do multiple non-cognitive tasks simultaneously.
Unfortunately, no. As you’ll see in the examples below.
Yes, it’s possible to simultaneously perform tasks that are controlled by different resource pools in the brain. This is called Multi-modal multitasking or Cross-modal multitasking. Of course, every bit of good news has a BUT attached to it. There are limitations to multimodal multitasking.
You notice so many examples in daily life where you can seemingly multitask.
- You CAN walk (motor function) and listen to music (auditory) at the same time. Bear in mind again, I’m talking about pure natural movement and pure auditory impulses. However, if you’re trying to emulate Monty Python’s silly walk (google it, if you don’t know what I mean) while also trying to match Beyonce’s pitch and tone, you’ll end up falling flat while squealing like a cat. Because you broke the rule. You tried to cognitive multitask by trying to think through two things at once instead of simply sensory multitasking.
- You can drive and listen to music but cannot watch TV and drive at the same time. (Though, that hasn’t stopped some adventurous (desperate?) folks from trying). That’s because the visual field is engaged in watching the road and is not free to watch TV.
- You can nod yes when listening to a person talking, but you cannot actively formulate a clever response. Alas, we seem to prefer the response formulation part over active listening. This may be the #1 reason for a lot of marital disputes. Just sayin’!
- In recent years, wearables such as smart watches have Haptic-functionality built in that take advantage of the multimodal concept. If you’re running hard, you can have your heart rate monitor convey information to you easily in the form of haptic alerts when you hit a threshold. Much less intrusive than you having to stop and visually check your device.
You can pair certain tasks, especially when they are rote or routine, so long as they have different sensory stimuli. You can dip into each sensory bucket just once. Also, know that you may not be as effective as when doing them one at a time.
Scientific consensus is still evolving in the area and effectiveness of multimodal tasks. Research shows that some pairs of tasks are ‘compatible’ and enhance the primary task experience whereas others interrupt it.
For instance, if you’re intensely focused on a cognitive task, such as writing or solving a math problem, a cellphone ping (though auditory) will interrupt your primary thought. However, a white noise machine, in some circumstances, is said to enhance creativity.
We’ll let scientists duke it out on this one.
Myths and Truths about Multitasking – Other common myths
I’d be remiss if I did not address a few other common myths around multitasking. Some are folklore. Some are just overly optimistic expectations.
Myth 4: Women are better multitaskers than men.
I have used this popular stereotype to a lot of dramatic effect in my own life. Turns out it’s not true. Devastating.
Here is the role gender plays in the ability to multitask – NONE. NADA. ZIP. ZILCH. In reality, multitasking causes a decline in performance across the board – for both men and women. Take that!
This one is a general life lesson rather than a lesson on multitasking. Don’t believe gender stereotypes. About multitasking or anything else. So profound yet so true!
Myth 5: The more you try to multitask the better you’ll get
Oh, yes! The power of practice. Haven’t we been told ‘If you don’t succeed, try, try again’. My advice. Don’t. Because of what is said below.
The more you try to multitask the worse you’ll get.
In fact, constantly multitasking, says Clifford Nass, a pioneer research scientist in this field, makes you unable to filter out key information. You lose the ability to determine what’s relevant and what’s irrelevant anymore. Ouch!
Don’t poke the bear. Trust science. Find some other challenges in life if you’re bored.
Myth 6: Multitasking is an important productivity hack
This one stems from the assumption that one of the core principles of successful folks is their ability to multitask. Or the fear that you won’t be able to master it all if you didn’t multitask. Because, c’mon who really has the time to focus on one task at a time?
Multitasking is a productivity killer.
Studies have shown multitasking reduces productivity by anywhere between 30 to 40%. Regular multitaskers who continue to multitask notice severe decline in their performance. Another study in London estimated that a person’s IQ drops by 10 to 15 points after constant cognitive multitasking.
Need I say more?
Not to state the obvious, productivity by definition means increasing efficiency. Study after study has proven cognitive multitasking does not help with improved productivity.
Myth 7: Multitasking can be taught
If you believe you’ve been doing it all wrong and simply needed to learn the right techniques, then I have some bad news for you.
The multitasking world is clearly divided into the have-nots and the haves.
98% of us are the have-nots! Truth. Unfortunately, the more people think they are good at it, the more likely they are not. Only 2% of the world’s population has a predisposition to multitask efficiently. They are called supertaskers. It is quite likely you are not one of them, because you probably would have known by this time. If in doubt, you are welcome to take the online test Are you a supertasker? here at our own peril! This is a legit test, not a Buzzfeed quiz to waste your time. If you end up with the world’s worst headache after taking the test, you only have your ego to blame!
The twain shall never meet! So don’t waste time trying.
Media multitasking is a reality and is the subject of rapidly evolving research. Gen Zers and even some millennials are a generation of ‘digital natives’. They claim to have inherent multitasking skills. They’d benefit from knowing the Myths and Truths about multitasking. If you find yourself or your teen constantly switching between devices, stop and ponder. Because. Science. And a 15 point drop in IQ may just be too precipitous.