We live in a world with so much technology that it isn’t uncommon for people to walk on the
street while texting on their phones, or for one to talk on the phone while answering an email.
These are examples of so-called multitasking, and many pride themselves as excellent multi-
taskers. In truth, multitasking is a myth that zaps away at a lot more than your energy and ability
to perform, and we will show you how this is so. We will also explore how you can dial back on
this monster and focus on one task at a time.
The brain simply isn’t wired to execute more than one complex task at the same time. For this
reason, what we call multi-tasking is in effect switching from one task to another in quick
succession. You aren’t working on two or more things simultaneously.
A simple exercise showing multitasking is counterproductive
Many people look at multitasking as a way to get more done within a short spell of time, and this
exercise below will show just how untrue that assumption is.
For this exercise, get a clean sheet of paper and quickly write the words “I am a great
multitasker”. Start a timer right before you begin writing. Immediately after writing those words,
write a number under each letter of each word until all the letters in that statement have a number
under them in chronological order. For example, the word “I” should have the number 1 beneath
it, and the ‘a’ in ‘am’ should have number 2 underneath it while the ‘m’ has number 3, and so on
right to the end.
When all the letters have numbers underneath them, stop the timer and record how long it took
you to complete that task.
For the second part of this exercise, you are going to repeat the same task, but with a twist. Start
your timer and write one letter from the statement ‘I am a great multitasker’ at a time, and after
writing one letter, write a corresponding number beneath it before moving to the next letter and
the number under it. Continue until the entire statement is completed and each letter has a
number under it. Stop the timer and record how long it took you.
Nearly everyone is always surprised that it takes nearly twice as long (or even longer) to
complete the task while writing a letter, then a number beneath it in contrast to first writing the
entire statement and then the numbers beneath each letter.
This task shows how unproductive it is to keep switching from one task to another instead of first
completing one task before moving on to the next task.
Why it isn’t wise to attempt to “multitask”
- It drains an inordinately high amount of mental energy
First, when you move from one task to another, you switch goals (changing from the goal of
writing a sales report to a goal of coming up with a funny reply to a meme on social media, for
example). This shift in goals burns mental energy, and the more often you switch between tasks,
the higher the mental energy you expend making the switch. Secondly, the prefrontal cortex of
your brain has to work out how to execute the new task you have turned your attention to. This
burns mental energy, and a lot more such energy is wasted every time you switch between tasks.
People who “multitask” therefore end up feeling more tired than those who focus on one task,
complete it, and then move onto the next task.
2. You never get into ‘the zone’
When you focus long enough while performing a task, you often get into the ‘flow state’ or ‘the
zone’ where time stops and nothing else exists apart from the task at hand. That high level of
engagement with what you are doing leads to exceptional work. However, task switchers never
get into the flow state because they are constantly flipping from one task to another. Excellence
is therefore hard to attain at any of the tasks they are doing.
3. It is time-consuming
As the exercise above demonstrated, you actually take more time completing tasks when you are
‘multitasking’ as opposed to completing one task before getting started on another. Isn’t it
ironical that what you set out to achieve when you multitask yields the exact opposite result?
4. Creative thinking is inhibited
Rapidly switching from one task to another takes up a lot of mental bandwidth and this doesn’t
leave you with enough brainpower to open the creativity taps. You see, our brains can only
handle so much at a time, and creativity occurs when there is some redundancy in the way our
mental powers are being called upon to perform.
Focus is therefore the key to creative thinking, and multitasking closes or curtails that aspect of
How to focus by reducing how much you multitask
a. Work in time blocks
One way to develop laser-focus is by scheduling your day in time blocks. For example, give your
most important task of the day a time block when you are most productive (earlier in the
morning, for example) and don’t do anything else until that allotted time is used up.
Also, instead of checking your email every 5 minutes, close it and check/reply messages within a
20-minute window in the morning, and during another time block in the late afternoon. You are in charge and decide what you pay attention to, rather than having to halt everything and read an
email just because a notification says you have incoming mail.
b. Remove distractions
You can give yourself a chance to limit multitasking by getting rid of as many sources of
distraction as possible. For example, why have your email inbox open, your Facebook open in
another window and other social media accounts open while you work on an important project?
The lure to ‘multitask’ will be so great that you won’t resist it.
Instead, turn off notifications on your phone and you can even leave the phone in another room.
Turn off the TV and any other electronic sources of distraction. You will then be able to focus on
the task at hand until you complete it.
c. Identify a single anchor task for each day
To regain laser focus, have just one priority for the day and concentrate on that until it is
completed. You can then attend to other tasks once this major one is out of the way.
Having a list of five ‘priorities’ for the day is a shortcut to multitasking, and we don’t want that to happen.
Pick just one anchor task and do other things once this important item is completed.
By the way, the word multitasking only came into existence in 1965 when IBM was writing
about their new computer. Machines can multitask, humans cannot! Multitasking drains us
mentally, physically and emotionally.
It also makes us more prone to making mistakes, and we spend a lot more time finishing tasks than we would have needed had we focused on one task at a time. Say no to this way of doing things and reclaim your ability to focus on one project/task at a time. It won’t be easy, but with each win, you set yourself up for more progress. Get started and let us see how high your productivity rises!