It’s no longer newsworthy to report that multi-tasking is a myth. Neuroscience has discovered what psychology long suspected – our brain doesn’t really perform multiple cognitive tasks at the same time. Rather, it switches attention between them, spending precious fractions of a second to re-orient to the new task at hand with each switch. According to one frequently cited study, someone who frequently switches tasks throughout the day is 40% less productive than someone who focuses on one task at a time. This switching doesn’t just waste time and productivity. It also causes you to make more errors. Interruptions as small as 2.8 seconds can increase your error rate by 40% when you return to the primary task. It also takes energy. Which is why trying to multi-task all day long will leave you physically exhausted, with a longer to-do list than when you started. Repeated multi-tasking could even be causing physical damage to your brain.
This realization has been the basis for multiple blog posts, articles and books urging us to become more productive through “single tasking.” The idea is a simple one. Just focus on each task, one at a time, until it is complete. Then move to the next task and so on. The research proves it works.
But let’s be honest. How many of us actually run our days like that? Chances are that right now you’re multi-tasking as your attention keeps getting pulled in different directions. What is it that is pulling you away from me? Is it a reminder that a meeting is starting in ten minutes? Or did a coworker drop by your office with a question? Do you have a nagging feeling you should be finishing up that report that’s due at the end of the day? Or maybe you just have 20 windows open on your pc and you can’t even remember what you were going to do with some of them. (I have no idea how YouTube videos of baby pandas and puppies keep popping up on my screen.)
You see, the reason I can describe your fragmented attention is that I’m just as guilty as you are. I actually started writing this particular post about three months ago. I was sitting in my accountant’s waiting room, feeling under-productive, so I took out a notepad and started writing. (That’s the old-fashioned paper notepad, not an electronic device.) I got to the paragraph above before our meeting started. I shoved the paper into my pocket, filed it in my “to-do” file when I got home and promptly forgot all about it. The only reason I’m able to finish it now is because I had a to-do task to clean up my paper files – something I only do about once a year, around tax time – and there was this half-finished post I’d completely forgotten.
It’s a strange feeling reading something you’ve written but long forgotten. It’s like reading the notes scribbled in your high school yearbook. The name is familiar, even the handwriting, but you can’t quite place the context of the message. Apparently writing “I’ll never forget” to someone right before you go off to college is no guarantee that you’ll actually remember them decades later. So here I sit, trying to extract some meaning from this little discovery before I get distracted again and go on to something else.
Albert Einstein said that insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.” So why are we all multi-tasking? As learning professionals, shouldn’t we be the masters of single-tasking and serve as role models for everyone else? It turns out that our brain actually is working against itself in this case. Because multi-tasking has been so ingrained in our culture as a sign that you are a very important person, (look at me, I have so much to do!) our brain gives us a little jolt of dopamine as a reward. It makes us feel good, so we do more of that behavior. The collection of negative consequences from our multi-tasking are so scattered that we don’t perceive them as direct results of our actions, so our brains never make the connection.
In terms of our biology, we’ve become multi-tasking addicts. Addiction can be treated, but so far there is no evidence of a cure. Whether your seductive drug of choice is heroin, cigarettes, alcohol or multi-tasking, we can control our actions, but not necessarily our unconscious cravings. That’s why addicts will sometimes describe themselves as “recovering.” Beating an addiction is a minute-by-minute choice to moderate our actions. As with all addictions, the first step to recovery is accepting that you’re addicted.
Sadly, our brains sometime lie to us. We have to be wise enough and strong enough to make a conscious choice to direct our behavior. It’s sort of like stopping yourself from asking, “Do I look fat in these jeans?” and just find something else to wear.