Doing one thing at a time
The illusion of multitasking
By now, enough studies have shown so-called multitasking actually increases the time it takes to get things done that it should be beyond dispute. We fool only ourselves when we believe doing multiple things at once increases efficiency.
And truthfully, don’t you often find it just plain annoying to feel forced to multitask? Wouldn’t it feel great not to? Wouldn’t you enjoy bucking a damnable trend like this — giving such a frustrating habit ye ole heave-ho?
Multitasking isn’t really doing things simultaneously anyway — it’s constantly alternating between more than one activity, and interrupting yourself each time you switch. Multitasking thus comes with numerous costs, has been shown to increase unhappiness, and can be harmful to your health due to increasing chronic stress. The work-related costs include up to a 40% loss in productivity and making more errors, the number of which increases with the complexity of the tasks involved.
Even simpler multitasking combinations such as smartphone use while walking can incur costs — nearly 20% of teens aged 13 to 17 and 10% of adults hit by cars while walking reported being distracted by their mobile devices at the time. Chronic “media multitasking” also negatively affects memory recall. Multitasking during cognitive tasks lowers IQ by about 10 points while so engaged. Also, studies show we are happiest when focusing on a single activity over shorter time periods of approximately an hour or less, while introducing variety of tasks over longer time spans of perhaps a day or longer.
Doing one thing at a time instead of multitasking helps in two ways: First, you actually get more done overall in a given amount of time, which frees up more time in the long run. And second, it compels you to prioritize which activity is most important to you at any given time.
If you begin living by the ethic of “one thing at a time” as much as you practically can, my experience is you will begin to perceive certain activities as interruptions that sidetrack you from a primary activity, or from doing things you love more. And if you begin minimizing or eliminating the interruptions, you will find that certain activities naturally begin falling by the wayside, or that you restructure your relationship to them so they no longer interrupt but are dealt with separately.
You’ll find you’re happier for it as well, at least I sure do — and isn’t that part of the point, beyond just productivity?
A multitasking exception
There is one exception to the “multitasking is less efficient” findings: Physical activities that are automatic and can be done with no or almost no thought (walking or eating, for example) can be combined with a mental activity in the foreground without detracting from it much or unduly slowing you down. On the other hand, activities not to combine are those that each require mental activity in the foreground to perform skillfully, effectively, or accurately.
So, for example, you might be able to perform repetitive tasks like chopping vegetables or folding laundry while you’re talking on the phone. Or take your dog along for a walk or push the baby stroller while you run or walk alongside or behind, or take a walk while talking on the phone. Or run or lift weights together with a partner while talking. Or perhaps eat while reading or watching a movie or TV program.
But even here, there are limits. Don’t be stupid — recall the point above that distractedness when using a mobile device while walking is a potential culprit in pedestrian accidents.
Ask yourself: How does my multitasking affect others?
The exceptions discussed above notwithstanding, try not to kid yourself, though. When it comes to phone conversations, put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Think about how you feel when they’re multitasking while talking to you.
Don’t you find it at least a little annoying when the person you’re talking to on the phone is doing something else while they talk? How does it make you feel? (Do you know how you feel about it? If not, it’s evidence you’re too distracted in your own life.) Would you really prefer they paid more attention to you? When they’re doing something else while talking with you, does it take away from the quality of the conversation and your satisfaction with it to some degree?
Conversely, look closely at your own feelings when you’re the one multitasking while talking to someone else. My own experience is that I’m just happier when I don’t combine other activities with talking on the phone and, on those unavoidable occasions in my day where I may feel forced to multitask, stick to combinations that don’t involve the phone. Give it a try. You may find, like I do, that the increased focus in your life from doing one thing at a time creates more satisfaction and fulfillment just in and of itself.
This leads up to the subject of taming phone usage in general.
Multitasking takedown: Tame your smartphone and put it in its place
Turn off virtually all notifications
As with the discussion of texting in Part 3, control your phone — don’t let it control you. The constant buzz of rings, dings, chirps, notifications, and alerts from our smartphones is probably the prime example of multitasking and its interruptions that we’re subjected to today. Aside from phone calls, many of these interruptions are tied to social media. But more and more, other apps these days also want permission to interrupt, er, ahem, “notify” you of various and sundry events.
My suggestion: Don’t permit any of them, except under certain critical circumstances. This means turn virtually all app notifications off. If you do make an exception, make sure it’s truly exceptional and absolutely needed. Because if you start permitting more than a very few, limited to those that are triggered only exceedingly rarely, they quickly become an unmanageable slippery slope.
Set your phone aside whenever possible
Additionally, I’ll suggest something else that might be anathema to many people: Don’t carry your smartphone on your person except on errands or during work hours, and the latter only if your job absolutely requires it. This will sound old-fogeyish, or “old school,” but treat it as if it were an old-fashioned landline phone. More colorfully: Regard that smartphone as a rabid dog you are going to cage, muzzle, or put on a tight leash.
Whether at home or work, set it somewhere out of your immediate sight but where you can hear it ring or buzz, and still get to easily. Remember, all notifications should be off other than for texts from a few key members of your “inner circle” in life, or current clients (if you’re self-employed). When it comes to errands on personal time, get control of yourself: Use the phone only briefly when essential if your spouse, partner, or kid truly needs something, or some exceptional situation arises.
Try giving the other person your full attention when talking — or bow out
If you’re on the phone, pay attention to talking with the other person and try to refrain from multitasking unless it’s a semi-emergency or worse (something about to burn on the stove, for instance).
With personal calls, if you’re truly interested in the other person and what they have to say, give them your undivided attention if at all possible. If you can’t do that, why are you on the phone with them in the first place? If you want or need to be doing something else at the moment or really aren’t that interested in talking, tell them you can’t talk right now because you are (doing whatever).
Don’t be one of those people in the grocery store yak-yak-yakking with phone in one hand pressed to ear and shopping cart in the other. Pay attention to one thing at a time: Get your shopping done, then talk, or vice versa. Stop shopping while you talk, and for Pete’s sake keep your voice down so you don’t bother other people (or preferably, step away a discreet distance). It should be obvious, but be polite when talking on the phone in the presence of, or near, other people. Don’t be a jerk.
Permit calls during work hours only from key short-listed individuals
If you tend to get more than a few calls that aren’t essential, set the phone up during the workday so that only the really important people in your life — boss or key work colleagues, spouse or significant other, kids, etc. — will be able to get a call or text through while you’re working. (The only exception here would be if you’re employed in a business where customer service is key, and part of that requires answering the phone when customers call.)
At work, if you really do need to check for texts or voice messages from non-colleagues, take a break every hour or two to do so.
Institute an evening “curfew” for your phone
Personally, I put my smartphone in do-not-disturb mode around 8:00 p.m. every evening until I’m up and about the next morning. If it turns out someone hasn’t yet encountered my phone curfew and has to leave a message after 8:00, I let them know about it the next day, and that I’ll be happy to talk before that time, but not after.
Other than emergencies, don’t make exceptions to the rule because if you do, that just encourages people to not respect it. Otherwise, friends, work colleagues, extended family — it doesn’t matter who — will learn they can “push the envelope” and they’ll bother you anyway. Heck, in my experience, there are some people who will attempt to bother you every so often regardless, even if you do consistently refrain from interacting after your cut-off time.
For the most part, though, you will find people get used to it. They may eventually even respect you for it. Don’t defend or try to convince, other than a few brief words about needing quiet time without interruptions for your sanity and well-being, or something to that effect. Just set an example.
Miscellaneous tips to combat multitasking and interruptions
Aside from smartphone usage, here are some other suggestions:
- Prioritize what’s most important and what can be put off (and for how long), so you get a global view of what’s on your plate and don’t fret over the things not being done.
- Learn how to say no so you have less than a full plate of tasks and deadlines that are stressful.
- Make your work environment as quiet as possible. If you work in an “open space” office area, wear earplugs or noise-canceling headphones if needed to block out unwanted sound, or pipe nature sounds into headphones to screen out office distractions.
- Reduce as many other distractions as possible, not only digital, but otherwise as well.
- Take down brief notes when interrupted. If you are doing one thing and some critical idea for another project pops up, note it down so it won’t keep gnawing at you, then get back to work. Or if something else comes up that absolutely cannot be ignored, make a note of what you were doing and where you were, so you can take right back up later where you left off.
- Maintain your energy levels and focus by taking regular breaks when doing mental work. A workable range tends to be from a five-minute break per half-hour time block (the so-called Pomodoro Technique) to a 10-minute break in each hour. Find your own sweet spot for this — there’s no need to be rigidly consistent from one break to the next or a slave to exact numbers of minutes.
Multitasking wrap-up: Not the right answer for our cultural emptiness
Even though it doesn’t work, multitasking on the job to try and get more done is at least understandable (until you’re made aware it doesn’t actually work). What is farcical and tragicomic, though, is when people multitask in a futile attempt to squeeze more enjoyment out of life.
How should we fill the emptiness? Let us count the ways.
How many people (perhaps even yourself, wink, wink) do you see in a day doing one of the following?
- Eating at a restaurant while fiddling with their smartphone and ignoring their companion.
- Eating at a restaurant with an eye on one of several TV screens while talking to someone else at the table.
- Texting while driving.
- Talking on the phone while pushing a shopping cart around.
- Playing a computer game on a smartphone or tablet while watching TV and talking to someone else in the room.
- Walking down the sidewalk while texting or surfing the internet on a smartphone.
- Watching TV while doing homework and texting or talking on the phone.
- Cooking dinner while watching TV and talking on the phone.
- Playing with one’s child while watching TV, reading a book, checking email, or surfing the internet.
What does our nonstop multitasking say about us? What is it we are really after?
What do the activities above tell us? What kind of hunger drives them? In situations like these where time pressure isn’t a factor, they say that many, many people are bored and unfulfilled today. That the only response they can think of (if they think about it at all) is to attempt to fill the time with as many activities as possible.
As if “keeping up” with the myriad of media messages out there will somehow lead to a heightened buzz of fulfillment from being in the thick of it all and on top of it all. A state, should it occur, that is at best fleeting, since the torrent of texts, postings, comments, and videos is relentless without lasting resolution.
As if it were possible — it isn’t — to squeeze some kind of satisfaction from the thin soup of such communications by glomming them together via simultaneous ingestion into some kind of thicker porridge.
These activities also show that people do not know how to be by themselves with their own thoughts. So much of what the nonstop texting indicates is people are afraid to be by themselves without someone else to talk to. Or if not that, the constant Facebooking and Tweeting and Instagramming and YouTube posting says they’re continually anxious about what others think of them.
As we saw in Parts 1 and 2, surveys have consistently shown for a number of years now that Americans are the sickest, most addicted, and least happy of the major developed nations. Do you see a connection here? Multitasking is not the answer. Instead, it is one of the key drivers of our problems. It is stressful and makes us unhappy. It’s yet another manifestation of overbusyness and “too much” in our lives.
What is the answer, then?
Happiness and true satisfaction are not things we can “get” by grasping. To the contrary, happiness recedes the more we try to suck it into our maw by doubling and tripling up on activities and things. The more thinly we spread ourselves around, the shallower any individual thing is necessarily experienced. Thus multitasking is self-defeating by its very nature, if getting some lasting sense of accomplishment or satisfaction out of it is expected.
Happiness comes when we allow ourselves the time to fully engage with the present moment. When we slow down enough to see the beauty all around us. So that our patience expands into each moment we inhabit. So that we experience the delight of complete engagement within and without.
True satisfaction comes when we let things be, when we let them flow, when we let our energy gather and build, and focus it deeply on a single, unified movement that speaks to us from within.
And this comes when we begin to learn, instead of doing more, how to do less — but do it more completely.
Up next in Part 5: Life strategies and daily-activity tactics for doing less.