I’ve posted a lot off and on about multi-tasking. The other day I came across another superb article on why multi-tasking doesn’t work. Here are some of the key points and excerpts.
First, when we talk about multitasking, we are talking about paying attention. Sure, you can walk and chew gum at the same time. But you cannot pay attention to two things at once. The article quotes from the book Brain Rules:
Multitasking, when it comes to paying attention, is a myth. The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time. At first that might sound confusing; at one level the brain does multitask. You can walk and talk at the same time. Your brain controls your heartbeat while you read a book. A pianist can play a piece with left hand and right hand simultaneously. Surely this is multitasking. But I am talking about the brain’s ability to pay attention… To put it bluntly, research shows that we can’t multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously.
Second, one reason multi-tasking is so costly is because it prevents you from getting into the zone. (And, by the way, if you don’t see the need to get into the zone, your work is too easy.)
The reason we get into the zone in the first place is because of our limited bandwidth. When you are truly engaged in something there is not room to pay attention to anything else. The result is that you get beyond yourself, completely involved in what you are doing, which research has found is one of the key components of satisfaction in our work and lives. The article quotes from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk about creative flow:
When you are really involved in this completely engaging process of creating something new — as this man does [he is describing a composer in the act of writing music] — he doesn’t have enough attention left over to monitor how his body feels or his problems at home. He can’t feel even that he’s hungry or tired, his body disappears, his identity disappears from his consciousness because he doesn’t have enough attention, like none of us do, to really do well something that requires a lot of concentration and at the same time to feel that he exists.
If you think “well, that’s important for someone like a composer, not me,” you are short-changing yourself.
Finally, it is true that there is something to be said for distractions and interruptions. They play a role in stimulating creativity and are simply “part of what makes us human.” You can’t — and shouldn’t — design your day to be completely free of interruptions. Interruptions are part of your job, and part of serving others; they also are a good opportunity for interaction and they make your day more interesting.
The issue is simply that you can’t make yourself available for interruptions all day long. You have to designate specific, focused time to plug away on your high-concentration tasks and get into the zone. If you continually try to mix high-concentration tasks with ongoing interruptibility and interaction, both will be undermined.