Sunday life: how to quit multi-tasking, already

Posted on April 18th, 2010

This week I unitask (albeit unsuccessfully) tumblr_koces2eSAq1qzrvo0o1_500

Dear Reader, I think it’s time I stepped down from the lofty stead upon which I’m often perched on this page. And be honest with you. As I write I have nine screens open on my computer, which I’ve been toggling between incessantly as I research this column, as well as email and Skype. I’ve just ridden into my office while listening to lectures on my ipod from the nutrition course I’m studying by correspondence. This was after I returned three calls while hanging out my washing. I only ever seem to return calls on washing day.

In short, I have not been unitasking.  Which, given the scope of this column, makes me a tedious fraud. Lump me, if you will, in the same basket where I like to put snooty hippies and spiritual materialists.

Worse, as I share my ludicrous multi-tasking ways with you I find myself feeling superior. Which women of my generation tend to do when it comes to multitasking. We brag we can find the butter in the fridge. And define ourselves by our ability to juggle kids’ breakfast bickerings and Blackberrys and oversized Starbuck coffees. While men – the poor things – struggle to tie their shoelaces and stick their tongue out at the same time.

But my failure this week in testing a life-bettering technique shouldn’t stop me from sharing with you the virtues of unitasking (as researched across eight screens). By way of an abstract, multitasking doesn’t work. Full. Stop.  But it saves time, I hear you cry. Actually, no. A University of Michigan study found it takes more time to toggle among tasks than it does to complete them one at a time. This is because it takes considerable time for the prefrontal cortex to refocus back to where a task was left off.

I know, I know, all you proud multitaskers out there will probably want to argue that you’re better multitaskers than the average person used in these kind of studies (who may or may not multitask). Don’t be so sure. Stanford researchers last year found that heavy multitaskers  (gits like me who choose it as a way of life, wear it as a badge of honour) are actually worse at task switching than the rest of humanity. Heavy multitaskers were unable to shut out irrelevant information and stimuli as they toggled, and got bogged down and discombobulated by it all. “They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing,” said one researcher. And descended into a brain tizz.

Alright, alright, you say. At least let us poor mulitaskers lay claim to being more creative for all our dynamic switching and seeking. Um, not possible. Another study found that when someone manages to multitask well, it’s because one or more of the tasks is being done on autopilot. Multitaskers resort to rote to cope. So creativity, subtlety of thought and intimacy is lost. Hands up who hasn’t been abrasive or dismissive when multitasking between three activities and a conversation with a co-worker? Or found themselves unable to access inspired thinking and defaulting to a routine solution? Yeah, thought so.

By way of final defense you might argue that with practice we can become better multitaskers. I advise you don’t. The part of the brain responsible for refocusing back to a task – the prefrontal cortex – is also the part most damaged by prolonged “feeling out of control” stress. Multitasking, of course, makes even the most hardened toggler frazzled. So the more we multitask, the worse we get at multitasking. Sigh.

Perhaps the most alarming factoid I read on the matter was from a paper published in Psychology Today last month that compared multitasking to eating empty calories.  When we eat a Krispy Kreme it switches on the reward-seeking dopamine circuitry, which creates an addictive crave cycle (due to the lack of nourishing reward from said empty calories). Ditto when we consume empty neural calories like Tweeting and Googling and stimuli toggling. When done together, it creates a dopamine overload, or mental hyperactivity, just like when you down a doughnut. There’s no reward (for instance, a focused sense of closure to each task) so not only do we become flabby of thought, we also become addicted.

Which means becoming a unitasker is as elusive as dieting. But, as they say, one step at a time.

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  • http://www.sharnanigans.com sharni montgomery

    Amen. As always , timely to my needs. cheers!

    [Reply]

  • Les

    Very, *very*, timely article! This is the major barrier I need to overcome in completing a PhD. Half the problem for me is avoiding distractions (Attention Deficit Trait – related to ADHD but affects adults and is a product of ‘always-on’ email, smartphones, Twitter, etc.). If I could just use a word processor without using a computer – once I have email and a web browser in the background, the temptation is too great and I give in to the distractions.

    I’ve made myself up a “No Multitasking” sign which I’m going to stick on the office wall to remind myself!

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  • Paul

    Great article. Another term for unitasking I once read was “spotlighting”.

    The book made similiar points that our brains really can only work on one task at a time and it’s fast switching creates the illusion of multi-tasking by switching very fast between tasks. It said we should focus a spotlight on just single tasks until done, then move the spotlight along to the next single task and stay until done, etc.

    Wholeheartedly agree about the addictive nature of multitasking too – just creates a little buzz in your brain when many things are whizzing around your ears.

    [Reply]

  • Paul
  • http://www.livingsavvy.com.au Jo – living savvy

    I re-thought the benefits of multitasking one day when I was unpacking groceries, putting bottles of milk in the fridge to be used in the middle of the night when my little fella was still waking, preparing dinner, talking on the phone & couple of other things, feeling very manic and then bumped the jellies that were in the fridge that were not quite set all over the kitchen floor & throughout the fridge……..there are times like you Sarah when I find myself sliding back into these habits but although I feel very satisfied when I get to cross 6 things of my list at once this feeling does not offset the throbbing in my head that goes along with multi – tasking.

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  • Rach

    Oh Sarah, I totally agree with the commenters above – how timely! You do have an uncanny knack of posting the right thing at the right time! Fantastic article, fantastic reminder to cut the ‘manicness’ of daily life down a notch. I am definitely guilty of not being completely present when I’m juggling a million tasks and I find it has an adverse affect on my memory… sometimes, when I’ve got autopilot cranked right up to overdrive, I find it really hard to recall the details of situations when I think back on them. Great if those situations involve washing the dishes, not so great if they involve time spent with friends or tasks at work where I need to be on the ball. If you don’t mind me asking, who are you doing your nutrition course through? I’m looking into doing the same thing and a good rec is always a winner… plus, it will give me something to do when I’m toggling between Twitter, Facebook and work emails (wink!) :)

    [Reply]

  • http://velvetinelily.blogspot.com/ Tracey at Velvetine Lily

    Sarah-
    I looove your blog and read your weekly article in the sun paper, without fail. Still holding onto your previous article ‘creating a clear day’ because it is so pertinent to me. Thank you for your sage advice in this time poor, crazy world. You inspired me to create a blog. you may like it. It is in the vein of some of your favourite blogs, I do believe. Drop by at Velvetine Lily
    http://velvetinelily.blogspot.com/ Keep inspiring us Sarah, with your honesty and observations x o x Tracey

    [Reply]

    Sarah

    Sarah Reply:

    Very cute blog Tracey xx

    [Reply]

  • http://velvetinelily.blogspot.com/ Tracey at Velvetine Lily

    By the way Sarah-
    You alluded to a book contract?! Gosh I hope so! When, what, when can we purchase it!? Very much anticipating this, Sarah. I really enjoy your writing.

    Kindest Regards, Tracey at Velvetine Lily

    [Reply]

  • Laura

    Thank you, Sarah! As usual, you are right.

    Of late I have been using Paul’s trick of studying for 30 minutes straight, followed by a 10 minute break. During the 30 minutes I can only have one window up – the Word Document. If necessary and 100% relevant to the task I can have ONE internet explorer browser up as well.

    When the 30 minutes are over I can toggle to my heart’s content. For 10 minutes. Then it is back to real work!

    (As we speak, I have 5 internet windows up, How I Met Your Mother playing in Media Player, and two word documents open. None of them productive. Whilst thinking about the assignment I SHOULD be doing.)

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  • Paul

    Laura, if Sarah doesn’t mind me posting – here’s an email I wrote in 1999 about my own struggles with studying and productivity along with some solutions > http://www.stephanieburns.com/articles/article05_paulhankin.asp

    PS: I’m no role-model on this stuff! I’m probably the laziest person in the world so always looking for short-cuts.

    PPS: Stephanie Burns rocks – she did her own PhD on Goal Achievement in adult learners (not Goal Setting which is very different). Sarah, she would be a great person to interview perhaps for your blog or column.

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  • Paul

    Oops, forgot to add she offers an online course based on her pPhD thesis work called Goal Achievement & Self-Leadership.

    I did the course 3 years ago and still use the concepts even today. It’s an email based course and highly visual in delivery so just heaps of fun. I highly recommend it.

    > http://stephanieburns.com/promo/courses/labyrinth.asp

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  • http://www.oncealittlegirl.wordpress.com Adela

    Even though we think we are so clever with all this multi-tasking, we really only do one thing at a time, the rest is just noise and distraction. (I read this somewhere and truly believe it to be true.) When I switch back and forth, hither and yon, I end up frazzled and usually not getting near the satisfaction out of any of the things I love to do so much. One thing at a time – own it- and have some fun. That’s my motto. And you’re so right, not always a motto I am totally successful at living.

    [Reply]

  • http://gaynoralder.com Gaynor (The Modern Woman’s Survival Guide)

    I too get caught up in having a gazillion other screens open when writing – particularly distracting when working to my column deadline. I am slowly learning and was just reading an article on how to avoid distractions in order to increase your productivity. It’s an interesting concept that you highlight here – that multitasking is in fact less productive, contrary to what our inner compulsive over doer tells us so (that lying, cheating, good for nothing little manipulator). I think more than the question of productivity, is the quality and joy that you experience when you do one thing at a time, instead of life being an endless to do list, that one must cross everything off like NOW. As a recovering over doer with no stop button, multi-tasking is a real flirt – one that I must learn to be strong in the face of temptation. No multi-tasking, I’m remaining faithful to flying solo ;)

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  • Laura

    so true, I’m absolutely shocking at this Sarah.

    Would love to hear where you are studying nutrition? I’m doing a course at the moment but have no access to listening to lectures. it’s a great idea

    [Reply]

    Sarah

    Sarah Reply:

    Hey Laura, I’m doing it via the Institute of Integrative Nutrition in New York. It’s fabulous x

    [Reply]

  • Helen

    I love your blog – but I’m little surprised by this post. You say you feel smug because you can find the butter, then feel guilty. With my partner, I told him exactly where something was yesterday, when I was ill, and ended up having to get out of bed to find it myself. I don’t think it’s conscious laziness, but I *do* think it’s lazy. It isn’t something I feel smug about. Personally, I would love it if my partner were better at finding stuff like that. The fact that he thinks he can’t doubles my workload, which is why I have to multi task. I would vastly prefer if we were both able to double task.

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  • Laura

    Wish I had known about this place before – they seem so switched onto how people need to be able to study these days, especially distance. Very inspiring.

    [Reply]

    Sarah

    Sarah Reply:

    If you’re interested in enrolling they have a deal on where we both get the following:
    Food Rules by Michael Pollan
    Nibmor Chocolate by IIN Grads Heather Kenzie & Jennifer Love
    Laughing Giraffe Vanilla Snackaroons by IIN grad Justin Baumgartner
    Purely Elizabeth baking mix by IIN grad Elizabeth Stein
    Vitamin & Mineral Wall Chart
    Louise Hay Affirmation Cards
    Bag the Habit reusable shopping tote

    [Reply]

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  • Laura

    I’m interested but need a bit more information. And how does the deal work? I can’t find anything about fees on the website

    [Reply]

  • Rachel

    I read your column over breakfast this morning and thought I’d give uni-tasking a go. I feel like I’ve achieved so much today and had better phone conversations with people when all I’ve done is talk to them rather than checking or responding to emails, printing the map for the place I’m going tonight, sorting papers, etc etc. Thank you!

    [Reply]

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