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Some things that are impossible: pigs flying, hating pictures of kittens, and multitasking.

Wait, what?

It’s true! Multitasking is impossible. At least, multitasking in the often misunderstood sense of doing two things at once. As NPR explains, you cannot split your active, working consciousness between two tasks; you can only switch your focus between the two very quickly. This is due to interference between processes, so that while your attention may be divided between tasks, your poor brain cannot share the tools it needs to complete them. Think you’re writing a grocery list and reciting pi at the same time? Think again! Your brain is merely doing its best to remember the word for cucumber before it comes up with the 11th digit (5) in a matter of milliseconds.

This constant flitting between ideas and objectives has been reliably shown to reduce effectiveness when the brain is too divided. A University of Utah study found that only a tiny fraction of people – around 2% – could perform multiple tasks without any negative impact on their overall performance. They also found that this microcosm of multitaskers received this gift genetically. If you’re not one of the lucky few, don’t try and exercise your brain for superhuman focusing abilities. For most of us, effective multitasking is far out of reach.

Someone should let the modern world know that. For most of us, multitasking is a reality of our day-to-day lives, like cursing (while driving) at the person who is talking on their phone (while driving). Multitasking is especially endemic to our workplaces, where we navigate emails and texts and countless other stimuli, hoping that our ability to be efficient will prevail. It doesn’t. A Stanford study examined the habits of heavy multitaskers and discovered that those who rely on multitasking frequently are often the worst at it, performing tasks much more slowly and with less success than their singularly focused peers. Forbes also reports on a University of London study’s findings: “Participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced IQ score declines that were similar to what they’d expect if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night.”

This is no way to be a productive worker and manager of your time. So how can you be more effective? According to Stanford researcher Clifford Nass, dedicating 20-minute blocks of time allows your brain time to focus and attune to a single goal, reducing the time and confusion caused by multitasking’s shuffle of ideas.

And in the Get Organized System course, we will see that it doesn’t take much to see the benefits of focus. By choosing to not multitask for just 90 minutes, a worker can save 5 ½ to 6 ½ weeks of working time per year. That’s even more time to get more done, and with focus, productive time snowballs, rather than the avalanche of confusion and work multitasking creates.

Slow and steady, as Aesop so wisely said. Perhaps you can remind yourself of his words between your 23rd email and 2nd phone conference of the day. Just be sure to stop and let them sink in when you do.

Posted in: multitasking


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