This article examines the ineffectiveness of attempting to perform multiple tasks simultaneously and suggests conscious and deliberate attention switching as an alternative.
What is multi-tasking
The belief that we can perform multiple complex tasks at the same time is a myth. Science shows that we can only pay attention to one task at a time.
(For a review of the research refer to the article Multitasking: Switching costs published by the American Psychological Association, in March 2006).
When we appear to be multi-tasking, we are in fact switching our attention back and forth so rapidly between tasks that it appears we are working on two tasks at the same time. This is called attention switching and when we are attempting to rapidly switch between a number of complex tasks, problems occur:
- We experience an increase in stress levels (attempting to multi-task can be very frustrating)
- We reduce our performance and make mistakes because we start to miss things
- We experience ‘attention blinks’- little gaps in our awareness (this can be hazardous when driving or operating machinery)
- We lose our ability to prioritise what is important from what is not
- We become tired more quickly because of the extra energy that is used when rapidly switching between tasks.
Dr. Susan Weinschenk in her article The true cost of multi-tasking identifies that the only situation where we may be able to effectively multi-task is when we are performing a physical task that we are very good at and are doing a simple mental task at the same time. This could be for example walking with a friend while having a casual conversation.
However she points out that even this may not be a valid exception. She cites research showing that people walking while talking on their mobile phones run into people more often and are less aware of their surroundings (Hyman et al. 2009).
Breaking the habit
Breaking the habit of trying to focus our attention on more than one task at a time is not easy. Dr. Weinschenk advises that the first step towards any behavioural change is to first accept that the problem exists. The next step is to begin noticing the behaviour as it occurs and recognizing it as an unproductive habit. Naming the behaviour when we first notice it is a good way to reduce its power over us. Simply saying “Oops, trying to multi-task again” is a good start.
In this way, with time and practice, we can replace rapid attention switching with a more productive and deliberate focusing of attention on tasks that we choose.
The experiment below demonstrates the unproductive nature of rapid attention switching. Time yourself or have someone time you as you carry out the experiment below:
- Draw two horizontal lines on a piece of paper
- On the first line, write: ‘I am a great multi-tasker’
- On the second line: write out the numbers 1-20 sequentially, like those below:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
- Write down the amount of time this took
- Again draw two horizontal lines.
- Write the first letter of the sentence ‘I am a great multi-tasker’ on the top line, then switch to writing the first number in the sequence from 1 to 20 on the line below, then switch again to writing the next letter in the sentence on the upper line, and then the next number in the sequence, changing from line to line.
Your lines will begin by looking like this:
I am …..
1 2 3 …..
- Write down the amount of time this took
Results & reflection
Compare the difference in time taken between performing task 1 and task 2 . Typically, the second task, where you are attempting to switch rapidly between two tasks, takes more than twice as long to complete. You may also have made a few errors and became a little stressed or frustrated as you tried to re-think the next letter or number.
Imagine how your stress levels are amplified when performing more complex and important tasks.
The alternative – efficient attention switching
You have now seen evidence of the unproductive nature of attempting to perform two tasks at the same time. What we need to do then is to move towards a more productive alternative that involve the conscious and deliberate focusing of attention on individual tasks for longer periods of time.
One strategy is to change our working environment. The environment in which we work has a significant impact on our ability to focus, so creating a quite environment where you can spend concentrated time on tasks is important.
Another strategy is deciding on which tasks have the highest priority. We become much more effective overall by selecting and giving our undivided attention to these tasks before others.
Developing conscious attention switching is however the key. While we do not always have complete control over external distractions, we can and develop efficient attention switching skills.
Consider the scenario below:
We are reading a research paper for an assignment and our mobile phone rings. We answer the phone and start a conversation while we continue skimming through the paper. Then a friend enters the room and asks us a question about an assessment task that’s due next week. We give a quick answer and return to the call but can’t remember what we’ve just been talking about. Meanwhile, the document on the screen has been ignored and when we do return to it, we need to start reading from the beginning again.
Efficient attention switching involves implementing strategies that allow us to switch our attention from one task to another and, wherever possible, complete the task (or at least some part of it), before moving on to the next.
In the above scenario, instead of talking on the phone while skimming a text, we mark where you are up to on the document then turn away from the screen and focus on the call. Then, when our friend enters the room, we say to the caller ‘excuse me for a moment’ and give undivided attention to our friend’s question. Then, when we finish the call, we return to the part of the text where you left off and continue reading.
The result is less stress, better relationships and more work completed with fewer errors in a shorter time period.
Improved communication skills and relationships
As was briefly touched on above, poor task switching practices can have an effect on relationships. In the next experiment you will explore the impact of inefficient task switching on communication, depth of experience and enjoyment. You will then compare this to the experience of communicating mindfully. (The source of this article was the course notes from the course Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance from Monash University, run through Futurelearn).
Ask a friend to take part in this activity with you. You will need to face each other, and at least one of you will need a device connected to the internet.
How to complete the experiment
- Face each other.
- Invite your partner to speak about something that they are authentically passionate about. It could be a hobby, a person, a pet, work, travel, love of food or anything else.
- Listen to the person speak about their passion, but at the same time use your mobile device to send a text message or answer emails. This will require you to attempt to multitask, i.e. to continue to have your attention on the device at the same time as you are attempting to listen to your partner.
- Let your partner continue to speak for about two to three minutes and then ask them to stop.
- Discuss with your partner about your experience, and what it was like being either the person speaking to someone who was multitasking, or multitasking while trying to listen. For example, you could discuss what effect it had on the conversation, comprehension, memory or clarity of communication.
- This time repeat the exercise with your partner speaking about a passion in their life, but this time you will be listening fully, not attempting multitasking. Please give your partner your full and undivided attention If your mind wanders off during the conversation, notice where the attention has gone and gently bring it back to the person speaking.
- Speak for two to three minutes, stop and then reflect on the exercise again.
- Compare the experience of mindful listening with the multitasking one. Which was more fulfilling? Which one brought out more passion in the person speaking? Which was preferable? In which did you remember more? Why?
Reflection on results
To explore more fully the connection between attempting to multi-task and effective communication, ask your partner their thoughts on the following:
- What was the effect of multitasking on the depth of communication, or the emotional experience in speaking or listening?
- Were they feeling passionate about their chosen topic during the experiment or did they start to lose the passion in what they were talking about?
- Did they feel that you were sharing their passion with any depth while you were multitasking?
- What effect did multitasking have on the level of engagement or connectedness during the conversation?
A call to action
This article has shown that learning to use our attention in a more effective and discerning way will help us to cope with the significant amount of tasks that we will encounter in our life. In addition it will improve our communication skills and as a result, our interpersonal relationships.
Start from now to become more aware of the negative effects of attempts at multi-tasking and begin to move towards a more efficient style of attention switching.
Becoming more aware of our mind’s tendency to become restless and seek out distractions will also help us to to develop effective attention switching skills. This awareness can be developed through mindfulness meditation. If you are interested in finding out more about mindfulness, click on this link: Guided mindfulness meditations