3 Scary Truths About Multi-Tasking (And 5 Ways To Stop)

Multi-tasking is a dangerous distraction that makes all your interactions suffer. Here are five ways to stop the noise.
July 12, 2011

You’ve probably heard the joke about what happens as you get older: “Memory is the first thing to go; I forget what the second thing is.” It turns out memory loss may not be the reason you’re standing in the garage trying to remember why you went out there, or why you spent $200 at the grocery store and neglected to pick up the lettuce you went there for in the first place. It’s not the years, it’s the tasks.

Multi-tasking slows you down

In a recent study by researchers at France’s National Institute of Health, the brains of subjects given a single, goal-oriented task showed activity in both frontal lobes. When a second task was added, the brain split the focus. One task was handled by the left side, the other by the right. But guess what happened when a third task was added? One of the first two areas of activity disappeared. Not only that, the subjects’ responses slowed down and they made more mistakes.

Now think about your typical office day. You’re desperate to get that memo off to your team before the end of the day. While you type, your e-mail notifier allerts you that messages are waiting, so you look at the summary list, then the phone rings and, of course, you take it, along with the text message you just received. All this on top of the usual visual, verbal and other sensory noise that’s part of the everyday cacophony.

No wonder we’re exhausted at the end of the day and often have little to show for our effort.

Multi-tasking is distracting

It used to be that when the phone rang and you weren’t in the office, the caller just left a message with your secretary (as they were called back then). She (infrequently, he) would then decide whether or not it was important enough to interrupt you. These days, most of us are our own secretaries. The filter is gone and while we can choose whether or not to answer a particular call, e-mail or text, just making that decision requires multi-tasking. It reduces our attention to whatever our pre-frontal cortex was doing before the interruption, and studies show it can cause us to be as much as 40 percent less productive.

Multi-tasking makes you less engaged

“If I’m so disengaged from a phone call that I can check my e-mail at the same time, then I should probably excuse myself and call back when I’m more focused or I shouldn’t have agreed to the call in the first place,” says Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours – You Have More Time Than You Think. “Sure, it’s less ‘productive’ to single-task. But productivity is a tricky thing. If you don’t check your iPhone in the deli line, you may just have to check it at some other point (like, oh, five minutes later). If you say hello to the woman who makes your sandwich, however, and ask how she’s doing, she’ll probably give you extra pickles next time. That sounds like a productive use of 30 seconds to me!”

Multi-tasking doesn’t stop when you leave the office, either. We do it with our spouses, our children, everyone. And just like at the office, those interactions suffer as a result.

5 ways to stop the noise

So how do you maximize your limited attention span? Here’s how:

Schedule some unplugged time

Like they say on Southwest airlines, “if it has an O-N / O-F-F switch, it should be in the O-F-F position.”

Put technology in its place

It’s supposed to work for you, not the other way around. Use instant responders or voicemail to communicate, even if you’re available, so you can decide what to do and when.

Use a variety of synchronous (e.g. face-to-face, instant chat, phone calls) and asynchronous (e.g. e-mail, forum posts) mediums to prioritize communications

For example, if it’s urgent, call. If it’s not, e-mail.

Lead by example

If you constantly interrupt your co-workers, calling them on weekends and at night, or otherwise make your priorities theirs, you’re sending them a message that that’s what you expect in return.

Be in the moment

Focus on giving your full attention to what’s important rather than what’s in front of you, ringing in your ear, vibrating in your pocket or doing the bouncy thing on your computer screen.

Just remember: Take care of those frontal lobes, and they’ll take care of you.