Ep. 3 – Multitasking Is a Myth

Today we’re going to talk about multitasking. What a hot topic! 

At the start of each episode, I’m going to do something different. I’m going to offer what’s called a BLOT, a bottom line on top. I’m going to pick a few of the key points that are going to come through this episode so that you can know what you’re getting before you even get it. Think of it as a sneak peek at the mental menu.

In this episode, we’re going to talk through why multitasking is a myth, what’s the story behind that, what happens to our brains when we try to do so many things at once, and finally why white space is oxygen for the brain. 

So let’s start by talking about multitasking. I bet you’re pretty good at it. Well, I bet you think you’re pretty good at it. Multitasking is a tricky, tricky topic for so many of us. We’ve been given messages to be efficient, to be productive, to be supercharged. Everywhere we look, there’s something telling us to go, do, achieve. 

We are sold the idea that we should chase the brass ring, and we need to do more to get more. And as a hard charging Generation X-er, as a working parent who traveled a lot, I definitely bought into that. I flexed multitasking muscles that I was very proud of for a long time, until I paid the price for all of them. 

You see, multitasking is not how our brains and body are wired. That’s just not how they’re even set up to be successful. When it comes to our cognitive capacity, multitasking simply doesn’t exist. In fact, the phrase multitasking was initially attributed to a supercomputer that IBM was introducing in the 1960s. It was a feature of that massive computer that was being able to do multiple inputs at once. 

But somehow, we’ve adopted that as a skill set when it was never meant to be attributed to humans or to human behavior. Instead, what happens within our brain is known as task switching. It’s often that unconscious shift in our attention between tasks. And we can do it really, really fast – within microseconds, sometimes. That’s why it feels like we are doing multiple tasks at once. 

Think of folding laundry while watching TV. Actually, even cooking, being in the kitchen involves a lot of task switching. And then when we show up to our daily lives with all of our devices and activities and responsibilities, there’s a lot of opportunities for us to be shifting our attention routinely, regularly, immediately. 

Another term is cognitive shifting. That is our brain’s ability to adapt our behavior and our thoughts to changing events and dynamics and activities around us. That’s where we can be in the middle of doing something, have an interruption or a disruption, pivot and be able to adapt very, very quickly. There’s a lot of science terms I’ve been throwing at you. I bet you’ll notice it in yourself pretty quickly with how you’re doing it. I promise you there won’t be a science test at all, at any of these episodes, especially because I studied English. 

It’s really more about the exploration of the baseline for what’s really happening within our brains and our minds and our bodies, and how we can adapt to that, how we can do those fewer things better. But really, how we can first start with that understanding that it’s not really about our willpower. It’s just skill power. And how can we bring these adaptive skills to our environment to make our life just a little smoother. Because there’s a cost to all of this switching that is happening. 

For some of us, if we’re trying to drill in and concentrate, we might turn off your phone, others might want to turn on music. You already have an instinctive element to how you want to maximize your brain. And the larger environment is often working against our own concentration. A lot of studies will show you that you have a matter of minutes before you’re going to be interrupted by external forces while you’re taking on an activity. And that’s before your brain even starts to interrupt itself. 

Let’s actually take an example. Let’s say that you are operating in a good place, you’re going to sit down and you’re to get going on something that you really need to tackle. You’ve had your caffeine or your carbohydrates, you are ready to concentrate. And you’re going to open let’s say an email. You’re going to be working on that and inputting a lot of different thinking that’s been going on. 

That’s called a cold start. You’re taking through an item that you’re going to start and hopefully finish in one go. In doing this, you’ve activated your executive functioning center of the brain. That is your cerebral cortex. You’re going along, you’re doing great, you’re pulling in all of this information, and then all of a sudden, you there’s an interruption. 

Now you get a ping from whatever device is nearby. And that ping is a little knock on your brain’s window asking you to pay attention. Even though you are really focused on what you’re doing, that ping has captured the attention of your brain. And let’s say you glance over at it quickly, and you see that it is a message from one of your favorite people. 

All of a sudden your brain switches to the amygdala. That is the emotional center of your brain. And it’s really, really, excited because now it wants to respond to that person – it’s one of your favorite people. But no, you’re switching back over to your cerebral cortex because you’re going to finish this. And so your brain begins to go back and forth with itself. And that happens frequently throughout the course of the day, even in those tasks switching, even as you come back to your original task, those interruptions have a cumulative cost. 

It usually takes us about 50% longer to finish what we were doing originally, and you’re twice as likely to have more errors. 

Have you ever been in the middle of writing an email or a text a message to anybody, and you get interrupted, you come back to do it, and you realize you forgot to put an attachment to it, you forgot to copy that people or it’s still sitting on your device somewhere, because you never actually got it out. I saw something recently that said, I do my best proofreading after I hit send. And I think that’s true for a lot of us. 

We’re trying to go so quickly and so fast that within that, we’re just trying to get it done. And instead, if we’re focused on doing fewer things better if we’re minimizing the disruptions, because they’re always gonna be there. But if we can minimize them, we’re really enabling our brain, we’re retraining our brain to be able to start and complete something – and feel that satisfaction from getting things done enables mental momentum. We’ll talk more about that as we go along.  

We’ll spend a whole other episode on how to hack our productivity. But for today, pay attention to the where, the when, and the how you find yourself task switching, because we all do it. And then we can start to explore where in those times where our brain is really responding and what might be possible if we give it a little bit of space. 

For a lot of people, that space could be exercise, or when you’re traveling either in a car or a different mode of transportation. For me, being outside in fresh air is when I move the blocks from my mind and I have room to let answers and ideas reveal themselves

Einstein famously said he got a lot of his ideas when he was in the shower. And a lot of that comes back to your brain simply have whitespace. Room to think. And when we’re able to do that, instead of switching so much, we’re not only able to complete the things, usually the first time, and certainly with less errors, but it also opens up for bigger things than just completion. That is where our friend, creativity, can come out to play. 

So for the next few days, start considering where do you allow your brain to have whitespace because that’s where the magic happens. When you start to identify and really explore that space, that’s where you will be able to do fewer things better in your own life. 

Until next time, take good care. 

Your brain is hungry. Give it some intellectual snacks in the
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I'm Kristin

I left my corporate work and dove further into how to navigate this noisy, digital, exhausted world. The result is a methodology centered on communications, productivity, and culture that blends theory with practice and helps people better enjoy the life they worked so hard to get.