Takeaway: Multitasking is a mistake. The less you do it, the more productive you will be and the happier you will become.
In our society, there’s this culture of multitasking that is so prevalent that we hardly even think about it. If you look around, pretty much no matter where you are, you will see people trying to do more than one thing at a time. It’s just a part of how we are, for the most part, at this stage in the world.
The bad news is that multitasking is making you less productive, which is admittedly anti-intuitive. It’s also making you less happy. The good news is that you can get a massive competitive advantage against other people if you learn how to stop because hardly anyone else is kicking this particular habit.
Need Another Reason to Quit?
Before we get into a discussion of how to stop multitasking, I want to point out a simple study that can show just how badly multitasking is hurting you. A total of 80 clinical trials performed by a psychiatrist at King’s College London University named Dr. Glenn Wilson followed the changes in effective IQ for workers throughout their day. The workers who were checking their email while they worked showed a 10-point reduction in effective IQ. This was directly related to the multitasking aspect of what they were trying to do.
Want to gain 10 IQ points? Avoiding multitasking could give you an effective boost of that level of magnitude.
Lots of studies and experiments have been done on this. Here’s a quick summary of one such study that breaks down the results in a very clear way:
In experiments published in 2001, Joshua Rubinstein, PhD, Jeffrey Evans, PhD, and David Meyer, PhD, conducted four experiments in which young adults switched between different tasks, such as solving math problems or classifying geometric objects. For all tasks, the participants lost time when they had to switch from one task to another. As tasks got more complex, participants lost more time. As a result, people took significantly longer to switch between more complex tasks. (Source: American Psychological Association)
And as you can see by the year, we’ve known that multitasking is a problem for a long time. This isn’t new information, and it’s not some untested theory: It’s been proven over and over and over again.
The Appalling Truth About Multitasking
The study mentioned above is a good example of how multitasking hurts us in a very serious way. If you want to understand why it hurts us, however, then you have to understand a simple fact: Multitasking doesn’t actually exist.
The fact of the matter is that you don’t ever really do two things at once. Instead, you switch back and forth very quickly at multiple things, which gives the illusion of “multitasking.” This switching of focus is the key to why multitasking is so damaging, and it’s where you can get a tremendous advantage over the competition if you stop doing it.
From the same study I linked to above:
Although switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error. Meyer has said that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.
It’s this switching back and forth that’s so important because that is the source of why multitasking is so bad for you and your productivity.
If switching back and forth is the source of all of this lost time and productivity, then the obvious answer is to stop the switching as much as humanly possible. That includes switching to other tasks that you’re trying to complete as well as other distractions that don’t offer any real value.