Updated: Jan 3, 2022
Stop multitasking, although it looks cool but its actually unproductive.
I used to pride myself in being a super multitasker. I would dictate a patient note while I signed some forms or checked my calendar for the week. I would pay our bills while also listening to a podcast. Play with my kids while texting with a friend or checking social media. I even sometimes would do three things at a time. I got a lot done. I was a super human. But deep down I also knew that I am making mistakes; my kids lost interest in talking to me, I would text the wrong person or make multiple typos. And I always felt overwhelmed, the more multi tasking I did the more it seemed is left to do. By the end of the day I was stressed and my brain was hurting.
Does this sound familiar? Most of us have been trained and at times encouraged to be multitaskers.
Well, it turns out we are wrong. Scientific data shows that multitaskers may think they are super humans, but in reality they are actually slower and are more prone to making mistakes.
Our brain does not work like a computer. While computers can process many tasks at the same time, our brain can only focus and execute one task at a time. So, during multi tasking our brain switches between tasks, it can not focus on two tasks simultaneously. Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), researchers at Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (INSERM) in Paris discovered that during a single task the brain uses both the right and left prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain involved in decision making. However when subjects were given two tasks, the left and right each focused on one task only, suggesting that during multi tasking the brain divides itself. So, while multi tasking may sound productive, in reality our brain is not equipped with the processing power to focus on more than one task at a time. As a result, we make more mistakes, take longer to finish each task and feel more fatigued. In addition, researchers at Stanford University have found that multi-taskershave a hard time filtering out distractors even when they are single tasking. It's as if their brain is trained to pay attention to all input, whether relevant to task at hand or not. On the other hand single taskers are better at remaining focused and filtering out distraction.
In contrast, when we focus on one task at a time, we make less mistakes, we are less distracted and we are more productive.
So, what does this all mean?
Multitasking, although sounds productive, is in fact the opposite: it leads to more mistakes, more distractions, more time per task and more brain fatigue.
I stoped multi tasking about a year ago after reading the scientific data. It was challenging at first. It’s hard to break old habits. But after some time I was able to change my habits. While I am writing this blog, my phone is in silence mode, I have no other windows open on my laptop and besides a gentle music to dampen the sound of my kids screaming at each other there is no other distractions in the room, all my attention is to this blog. I can assure you that I still do the same number of tasks per day. In fact it takes me less time to finish all my tasks and I feel significantly less overwhelmed and tired. Here are some examples:
In past, while playing with my kids I was also on my phone looking at social media, email or reading the news. I was never really present and fully engaged with them.
After a while I noticed that my older son has stopped talking to me, he only wanted to talk to his mom. I was complaining about this to my wife. She told me maybe its because I never fully pay attention to him. So the next time he talked to me I put my phone away and gave him all of my attention. I actually realized how much I was missing and how funny and pleasant it is to engage with a 5 year old. (Disclaimer, this is actually when I started looking into multi versus single tasking). Now let's be clear, I am still a second class citizen at home, mommy is always number one, but even as number two I feel like I am much closer to my kids now that I don't multitask.
In past, while I was going over a patient’s chart I had my phone next to me and my email open. Every couple of minutes I would be distracted by an email or text. It would take me 15 minutes to finish one chart. Not to mention that I had to go back and fix some typos or correct some orders. Now I put my phone away and close my email. I solely focus on finishing the chart. Takes me no more than 5 minutes, I feel much less stressed and I make no errors. And since I finish much faster I have free time to check my emails and messages.
I can give many more examples. But you get the idea.
Single tasking simply means being present in the moment. Having your full attention to what you are doing. This in fact is the practice of mindfulness. A very important topic that is one of the pillars of healthy living (see HealthierlifeMD to learn more). Mindfulness improves your mood and mental health.
Now, I will be honest. There are times that as busy professionals most of us have to juggle multiple things. I can not let the food on the stove burn because Louis wants to talk to me. I may only have an hour left to myself and need to talk to a friend and do the laundry. So, like everything else in life, single tasking is not absolute. The point is to try and single task as much as you can. Here are some tips for success:
For important tasks that require your attention (think work related, paying bills, financial planning, playing with your kids or talking to your spouse) try and single task.
For work or personal related issues that you can not make mistakes, allocate time. This gives you a limited time to focus, allowing you a reward at the end (looking at social media or checking your email). Sunday mornings I spend 15 minutes going over our weekly expenses. That is all I do. Nothing else.
Unless you are making a nuclear deal, stop checking your email every 5 minutes. Allow yourself 2-3 allocated times per day, use that time to read AND respond to your emails. Checking your email every few minutes without taking any action will just add to your stress. So only check your email when you have time to respond or take action on each email you read.
If on your computer, only have documents and windows that you are working on open. Close all social media and other tabs. It’s very tempting to just click on Facebook, but even a couple of minutes can distract you.
Batch less focused activities together: cook while you talk to a friend, fold laundry while you are listening to a podcast or book.
Change your text and phone toner for important people. This way you don’t have to get distracted every time your phone dings. Only when certain people contact you (your spouse, kid’s school, certain work phone or whatever else is very important in your life) you will stop what you are doing and get distracted.
If you have a hard time tuning out all those texts, emails or phone notifications from various apps on your phone, you have two options: a) go to your setting and disable certain notifications, b) put your phone on “do not disturb” option when you are doing an important task. You can still choose to allow certain numbers to come through.
If you are working at home, turn off the TV.
I hope this blog resonates with you multi taskers. If I have not been a good salesman, then just try it for a week and let me know how it goes.
AUGUST 24, 2009: Stanford News. Media multitaskers pay mental price. Adam Garlic.
Cognitive control in Media Multitaskers. PNAS Sep 15 2009. Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner.