April 16th, 2010

Email Chicken and Google Reader Oatmeal: Let’s stop committing multitasking crimes

It should be outlawed. Several years ago, a friend of mine, enamoured with her new Blackberry, marveled at how she could check her email anywhere, even while barbecuing chicken. Her husband, however, was considerably less impressed. When he went to check on the chicken that he had left in her charge while he was taking care of other things for the meal, can you guess what he found? Yep, that chicken was black, burnt to a crisp. To this day, he refers to this cooking disaster as “Email Chicken”.

I stopped laughing at this story the day I discovered that Google Reader Oatmeal tastes really gross. I love to read the blogs in my Google Reader in the morning, while my oatmeal cooks. (I make the slow-cooking kind, the best there is.) I pride myself on being a half-decent cook (handmade pasta, succulent filet mignon and glorious turkey), but that day, I burnt oatmeal. What sort of loser burns oatmeal? A multitasking one.

So here it is: I now declare multitasking to be a crime.

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No emails were written while barbecuing this chicken on a beer can. The succulent result spoke for itself.

Like my email crimes, I am a reformed multitasker. I used to multitask all of the time. I cannot tell you what happened in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s because, while I watched it, I was making a necklace. I used to process my email while talking on the phone, whether at home (talking with my Mom or sister) or with a customer. I shudder when I think of it now, but I actually had one customer repeat what he had just said, very irritatingly I might add, which I missed because I was multitasking. Not only was that embarrassing, it was eye-opening.

There are no multitaskers, just people who think they can multitask. According to this cognitive scientist, there are there are three types of “multitaskers”:

  1. Desperate to stay competitive: “This is the way it is, suck it up”
  2. Impulsive: unaware, for example checking email and text messages while doing something else, including having a conversation.
  3. Proud: believe they are superiour human beings because they multitask, and will seek out opportunities to continue. “I’m a multitasker.” (Yeah, sure you are.)

If you judge me as an inferiour human being because I have dared to proclaim myself a monotasker, you would not be alone. Take a peek at the comments on this blog post that dares to question multitasking. Geez, you’d think they were being told there is no Santa Claus. The category 3 people rise up in arms (“I can do it, why can’t you”) while the category 1 people will ask “What choice do we have? That’s just the way it is.” The category 2 people are too busy checking that new email that came in and missed the entire conversation…

Flip the switch. There is considerable science to prove that multitasking is a myth. In one test performed at the University of Michigan, MRI scans were taken of a test subject while performing relatively simple tasks: red digits required identification accordingly to its numerical order while green ones required selection according to font size. The MRI scans measured the brain’s activity and found that the brain actually paused before switching from one task to another, ie from red tasks to green ones. There was no “multitasking”, only fast switching. When we claim we are multitasking, we actually shifting our focus from one task to another with astonishing speed. Other studies have found that the mind actually slows down when it switches from one task to another.

Think you’re Good? Think Again. This study is even more interesting. Comparing multitaskers to monotaskers, the monos scored higher on every test than the multis. “The shocking discovery of this research is that [high multitaskers] are lousy at everything that’s necessary for multitasking.” Did you get that? You only think you’re good at multitasking but really, you’re not. At all.

Faulty Wiring? The science behind the mythology of multitasking is simple: our human brains are simply not wired for it. Our brain’s executive system, located in the frontal lobe behind our eyes, is responsible for “directing traffic”: taking in the information that we receive and directing it for processing to other parts of the brain as appropriate. The executive system is also responsible for removing distractions, in other words, helping us to focus. Theories are that this is a throwback to our hunting days: the ability to focus allowed us to win the “eat or be eaten” evolutionary battle. All this to say that our brains are wired to perform one task at a time, and to switch rapidly from one task to another. Our brains simply cannot handle doing more than one thing at the same time. Period.

Our brains also delude us into thinking that multitasking is productive, much the same way that my brain deludes me into thinking that all that TV I watch is good for me. Wonderful thing, that human brain.

Test Yourself. Ever since I read that first article debunking the mythology behind multitasking, I’ve been doing these simple tests. Try them and be honest about your performance:

  • Drive and listen to a podcast at the same time. Tell the truth, when that car cut you off, you stopped listening to the podcast, didn’t you? You actually had to rewind it, right? (Or does being cut off only happen in Montreal?)
  • Talk on the phone with a close friend and process your email at the same time. Call the friend back and ask “How attentive was I? Did you sense that I was engaged in the conversation?” You might be surprised at the answer.
  • Watch TV and do anything at the same time. I used to do all of my multitasking while watching TV. Until I found I had to keep rewinding because I missed something important, which meant taking twice as long to watch the program. I now choose to watch less TV, but at full attention. It’s amazing how much more I understand of what is going on. Oh, by the way, even during the peak of my multitasking days, I never multitasked while watching Lost. Never. For obvious reasons.

Mono Doesn’t Mean One. For some reason, people equate monotasking with having only one item on your TBD list. Of course not! All monotasking means is that when you choose to tackle one task, you focus only on that one task. Don’t forget that there is also “parallel tasking”: while one task is sleeping (doesn’t need your attention), you can shift your full attention to another task, preferably in the same category or physically nearby so that you can still monitor the first task. A cooking example would be: while waiting for the water to boil, you’re slicing the garlic and onions. But not, absolutely not, checking your Google Reader or your email. I believe I was clear on that…

There is Life Without Multitasking. If I have convinced you to change your criminal ways, try these handy tips for being more productive without multitasking, adapted from this article.

  • In a Minute (No, Not Really). Improve your ability to accurately estimate the time to complete tasks. On a daily basis, write down all the tasks you have to accomplish and estimate the time needed. Then truthfully time yourself. In addition, note how many items you actually cross off your list. You will be able to find the percentage that you routinely underestimate as well as what you can realistically achieve in one day and can adjust your work schedule accordingly. You’ll be surprised at how long things really take and how few tasks get completed. But, once you focus, you’ll find that you are crossing items off with more regularity.
  • Unclutter your brain. A cluttered brain makes it much more difficult to be creative and productive. David Allen calls the state of an uncluttered brain “mind like water”: in this state you can quickly process new information, assess new risks, and take action. In order to unclutter your brain, use external memory as much as possible: anything from a pad of paper to a task list in Outlook.
  • These things belong together. Rather than checking email multiple times per day, set times for reading and responding. Put other similar tasks together, like paying bills or reviewing the financials on your projects, to increase efficiency. Project managers spend a lot of time following up delegated tasks: group your follow-up tasks together and walk around to get an update from each person on your list (MBWA).
  • Interruption Management, not Time Management. In order to keep your focus on your task, control interruptions and noise, including shutting off email, Twitter and IM and letting your phone go to voicemail.
  • We All Have A Little ADD. Yes, focus on one task at a time can get boring, even for an introvert like me. To get around this, take a break every once in a while (for example a 5 minute break every 30 minutes.) During this break, do whatever you want: read your email, blog posts in your Reader, checking your newsfeed in Facebook and Twitter, make a quick phone call, listen to music, or get up and talk to someone. Just be sure that you time this break. When you come back to your task, you’ll be refreshed, ready to focus again. For example, while writing this blog post, I stopped, read and commented on a blog post, then came back to writing.
  • Note to Self: Start Here. I sometimes need to step away from a task before I finish it. Looking at a document with fresh eyes the next day allows me to see things differently. Before stepping away, I leave a note in my TBD list, (“Left to do: add photo, add links, polish draft”) so that I know where I can pick it up again next time.

Monotask Without Shame. And so, dear readers, I give you permission, backed by scientific data, to go forth and monotask without shame. Before you know it, multitasking will be out of style, and we’ll be saying stuff like: “Multitasking? Pffft, that is soooo 2009.”

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