Wednesday, March 28, 2020

Accept it: you can’t concentrate on two things at once

Multi-tasking isn’t a solution to soaring workloads. It’s a huge part of the problem.

There are some topics that it’s worth returning to periodically; some myths that are so deeply-rooted in our culture that eradicating them is like getting rid of couch grass—you know that it will take many, many applications of weedkiller to do the job. One of these topics is multi-tasking. The more stressed people become, the more they attempt to do several jobs simultaneously. Yet research (and commonsense) strongly suggests that the human mind simply isn’t designed to work that way. Here’s another dose of anti-multitasking “weedkiller.”
What is multi-tasking? It’s a process of mental juggling with tasks or thoughts: trying to handle two or more tasks simultaneously, switching constantly between tasks, or jumping through several in rapid succession. It’s become a staple of macho styles of management, especially Hamburger Management. So much so that people don’t just rely on this supposed ability to handle their crushing workloads; they boast about how many disparate jobs they can handle at the same time. It’s another case of: “I’m better than you are, because mine (my mutli-tasking) is bigger than yours.” The kind of infantile boasting that we fondly think is confined to adolescent boys, but turns out to be just as prevalent in middle-aged ones, especially after several drinks.

Of course, organizations have come to rely on this supposed multi-tasking ability to allow deeper and deeper cuts in staffing to save cost and boost short-term profits. So people pile on the work, constantly switching between tasks, while being distracted by all the e-mails, phone calls, BlackBerry messages and the like that they imagine they have to handle to prove their management and professional ability. Since there’s no time left in normal office hours for real work, what with all the pointless meetings as well, they take work home every evening and weekend, telling themselves that they’ll be able to do it then in peace and quiet.

That doesn’t work either, of course. There are domestic and family matters to attend to. Perhaps the television is on in the same room, or nearby. Other people interrupt with questions, comments, or futile requests for attention. After a day spent juggling half a dozen tasks and distractions at once, the evening or weekend is devoted, in large part, to the same thing. Stress is piled on stress. People lose sleep to work; and when they do get to bed, their brains are on hyperdrive, so sleep is patchy and interrupted.

Multi-tasking isn’t a solution. It’s a vast and growing part of the problem.

Research shows convincingly that doing more than one task at a time, or jumping between tasks, especially complex ones, takes a heavy toll on productivity. This macho approach to handling greater workloads turns out to make the people who use it less productive, not more.

The truth about multi-tasking is simple. You can never have more than 100 percent of your attention available. Split it across two tasks and nothing changes. Still 100 percent. Only now each task has 50 percent—or one has 70 percent and the other 30 percent, however you choose to share out your attention. Even if you “oscillate” between the tasks, each gets only 100 percent for a limited time, before you switch back to the other one. Maybe not even that, since it is known that it can take the mind up to 15 minutes or more to get back to full attention on the task that you previously dropped. Take the average attention devoted over any period and it must be less than 100 percent (remember all the gaps with zero, plus the “warm up” periods?). Now suppose you’re multi-tasking between three or four tasks. How much of your attention will each one get? You do the math. Of course, this assumes you are ever able to put 100 percent of your attention on any task. In most organizations, that’s rarely possible, what with meetings, phone calls, e-mails, and all the other distractions.

People who believe they can multi-task effectively share a dangerous delusion: that paying attention to several things simultaneously actually increases their available attention above 100 percent, so they can still focus fully on every task. This is logical nonsense. It’s like saying you can spend your total income on food and housing and have the same amount available to spend on an expensive vacation. Of course, some people even believe that. It’s called “getting hopelessly over your head in debt.” But there are no banks or credit-card companies available to lend you more attention, even at racketeering levels of interest. However you divide up your attention, you’re stuck with the same overall amount. Just 100 percent, never more.

If you still don’t believe me, look at this research published in the extremely prestigious scientific journal “Nature.” Putting attention on something necessarily means taking it away from something else. Every distraction consumes attention. Every extra task takes attention away from all the others.
A study of brain activity in subjects performing a task in which they were asked to ‘hold in mind’ some of the objects and to ignore other objects has revealed significant variation between individuals in their ability to keep the irrelevant items out of awareness. This shows that our awareness is not determined only by what we can keep ‘in mind’ but also by how good we are at keeping irrelevant things ‘out of mind’. This also implies that an individual’s effective memory capacity may not simply reflect storage space, as it does with a hard disk. It may also reflect how efficiently irrelevant information is excluded from using up vital storage capacity.
Or how about this article in the New York Times [via] ? Or this one in TIME magazine?

Our total awareness is limited to only three or four objects at any given time. We can concentrate fully on only one.

Because of this “extreme limitation,” people need to control what reaches their awareness, so only the most relevant information in the environment consumes their limited mental resources. Try to fill your mind up with too many things (e.g. by multitasking) and your “limited mental resources” will be as surely overwhelmed as they would be by all those irrelevances. It will be like the party where you’re holding a glass in one hand and a full plate in the other when the Chairman comes along to shake your hand. You just know something is going to drop!

How long will it take to convince everyone, including the grab-and-go organizations and macho Hamburger Managers out there, that true multi-tasking isn’t possible? That what they are doing is lowering productivity, raising stress levels, and turning creative, productive people into semi-idiots?

I don’t know the answer, but I’m sure it won’t be a quick fix. In the meantime, for the sake of your own sanity and health, refuse to join in the whole multi-tasking nonsense. Slow down. Only check e-mails at set times. Turn off your cellphone whenever you can. Don’t attend pointless meetings. Keep right away from inane activities like Instant Messaging people all the time. And if your boss asks you to take on still more work, ask him or her which existing items you should drop to make room.

But above all, never, never, join in all the silly boasting about how much work you can handle and how well you can multi-task. Killing yourself for your career means you won’t be around to enjoy your success, while your organization will. Remember the Latin phrase, much beloved by mystery writers, cui bono? (who benefits). Organizations benefit from multi-tasking and Hamburger Management, not employees. Why should you go along with that? Besides, as the research proves, multi-tasking makes you less effective and productive. If you’re under pressure, multi-tasking is trying to put out a fire with gasoline.

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Dave Russell said...

This strikes a chord with me. Long experience in project management convinced me that a major cause of project drift was that too much multi-tasking meant that tasks were seldom truly completed to the extent they never had to be re-visited. All projects had a "long tail" of 95% completed tasks which added up to serious time and cost over-run in the end. Examples would be documents in final draft but never quite released, maintenance specifications still waiting for the last few data from suppliers, and so on.

5:01 AM  
Kylie Sachs said...

Just wanted you to know that I find your blog incredibly inspirational, and as such, I have tagged it with a Thinking Blogger award

7:18 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Dave.

Very helpful to have such a practical example.

Keep reading, my friend.

7:50 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks a bundle, Kylie.

I'm amazed and flattered. Glad that you enjoy these posts.

Keep reading, my friend.

7:54 AM  
patti digh said...

In a week-long seminar we're teaching on experiential learning, my business partner and I are focusing part of the time on "attention" and "attentiveness." Ellen Langer might call it mindfulness. We're asking participants to spend 1/2 day of the time they are at the Institute doing only one thing at a time. That is, if they are drinking a cup of coffee, that is all they can do at that moment - they can't talk to others, read a book, or write a postcard - just drink coffee. If they are talking to a friend, they can't eat or drink coffee or check their Blackberry. Try it for half a day - I think there are Big Insights to be had...!

9:08 AM  
Marti said...

One of my friends at work stated that the height of delusion is thinking that multi-tasking will allow you more time to catch up, the further you get behind. At my project management classes from Villanova, they stated very clearly that if a project starts out late, it will nearly always finish late, or even later. Thanks for bringing up this very obvious truth that most managers find inconvenient and deny. From what I've learned working on and managing IS/IT projects, multi-tasking is effective only when the tasks are unimportant. That being the case...why do them at all? Turning off IM except when I'm trying to network has increased my productivity for sure.

10:24 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for a great comment, Marti.

Multi-tasking definitely won't help anyone make up lost time. The likelihood is that it will put them further behind.

Keep reading, my friend.

11:03 AM  
Anonymous said...

There is one justifiable situation where having multiple tasks can be benefitial, but I don't want to suggest that numerous switches is a positive endevour.
If a person has tasks which require large downtimes, for exaple needed to wait for somebody else to finish their bit and resyncronyzing with that other person. If these intermediate delays exist, it may be benefitial to have other tasks waiting which can be worked on, rather than sitting idle waiting for somebody else.

It should also be noted that these alternative tasks should probably also be small, and not expecting large amounts of full attention.

4:32 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Fair point, but I don't think I would count that as true multi-tasking: more a kind of serial handling of separate tasks to avoid being idle.

The essence of multi-tasking is, I believe, the futile attempy to do several things at the same time, either by switching between them rapidly and repeatedly, or by trying to handle them simultaneously.

Thanks for your comment. A useful point nevertheless.

5:00 PM  
Fran said...

I couldn't agree more. It's the same thing they say about serving two masters at the same time. Like what you said, doing so will only cause and will certainly cause stress.

2:59 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Fran.

You are quite right, of course. This point was made more than 2000 years ago, but we still fail to get it.

Keep reading, my friend.

7:07 AM  
Anonymous said...

Coyote: Very much enjoy your blog! Thanks so much for being there! I've favored you on my blog.

I have the privledge of sending out "leadership lessons" periodically at my organization and I would like to send this multi-tasking post to our leadership group with clear citation to you. Would that be OK?

You did say though how the myth of multitasking benefit organizations but I don't really see how it can. If it truly decreases true and valuable productivity how does that benefit an org?

You can see how provacative that could be if I put it out there in my org?

I am an OD guy in a prodominently "old school" leadership culture. And I'd like to keep my job.

Are you saying that orgs believe they can benefit if they cut people (costs) and expect others to "multi-task" to make up for the fewer people.

8:00 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

That's what I am saying, Anon.

People believe myths. Many people believe that multi-tasking does increase their ability to handle work. The evidence says they are wrong, but most have never had access to the evidence, preferring to believe what seems comforting.

Corporations want minimum staffing to save money. If they believe that people can do several tasks at once, that's a way to achieve what they want. Sadly, it's a myth.

I'm very happy for you to circulate this post as you suggest. Just be aware that many people don't like having their cherished beliefs proved wrong!

Keep reading, my friend.

10:37 AM  
Helen said...

That is quite true. It's not that I used it at work but I've tried doing it. I guess everybody knows how it scramble our thoughts. Thinking of the different things at the same time can really push your thoughts out of focus. Trying it hard will only give you a headache.

6:46 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Helen.

I often find that when I try to, say, think about what I'm saying and where I'm going next at the the same time, the two thoughts interfere with one another. So I either stop speaking, get in a muddle with my words, or come out with some jumbled garbage.

The human brain can only focus consciously on one thing at a time. Trying to make it handle two or more is only going to screw them all up.

Keep reading, my friend.

7:08 PM  
neerav said...

As a one-man small business I completely agree with you

It can be hard to concentrate on getting the important stuff done while still responding to phone calls, emails etc reasonably quickly as well.

11:32 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Neerav.

I'm glad that you found the post useful.

7:02 AM  
Nathan Zeldes said...

Actually, it can't be true that "Organizations benefit from multi-tasking", if it is true (and I agree that it is) that "multi-tasking makes you less effective and productive". An organization that stresses multi-tasking is making its own employees unproductive - hardly a recipe for benefit...

12:59 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Good point, Nathan.

Let me clarify. Organizations believe that multi-tasking benefits them due to the conventional view that the way to a successful business is primarily based on cutting costs — especially the costs of employing people.

In fact, continual cost-cutting produces only a short-term benefit, often at the expense of longer-term results. But, since the typical executive rarely considers the longer-term (many don't last that long in their jobs), they see the short-term gain and miss (or ignore) the long-term loss.

Exactly the same is true of multi-tasking. In the short-term, the organization appears to benefit by a cost reduction (caused by employing fewer people for the same amount of work). In the longer term, reduced productivity and enhanced stress negate that benefit and impose a penalty instead.

Of course, seeing cause and effect requires not just a long-term view, but also an openness to look beyond "accepted wisdom" on the necessity of continually cutting costs. It's probably easier — and more common — to blame the individual for personal failings or lack of "commitment."

Thanks for encouraging me to clear this up.

Keep reading, my friend.

4:43 PM  

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