Hello Zen Organizers,
I hope you're well!
Today, I want to talk about the effects of multitasking and its less known cousin, cognitive switching, on productivity. You've probably heard the former ability demonized quite a lot. And, on the contrary, you most likely never heard of cognitive switching at all. That's because it's often confused with multitasking.
So, before we get into the details, let's make sure we all have the same definition of multitasking and cognitive switching. Multitasking "is the ability to perform more than one task or activity at the same time" (Human multitasking, 2021). It shouldn't be confused with cognitive switching, which "is the mental process of consciously redirecting one's attention from one fixation to another" (Cognitive switching, 2021).
In both cases, they tend to have a bad reputation because of their impact on performance and productivity. But just like most things in life, it's not all black or white. Generally speaking, these two abilities seem to have more negative effects on productivity and concentration than positive ones. However, they can present some advantages as well, albeit in specific contexts.
Cognitive switching, the real productivity killer?
Most of the time, when people say they're multitasking, they're actually switching from task to task more than they are handling different tasks at the same time. For example, they might be working on a project and get distracted by email notification. So they switch from working on their project to reading and replying to the email. Then they go back to working on the project but get distracted by a colleague asking them a question. Then they go back to their project, only to be disturbed by a phone call, and so on.
I'm sure you can relate to this kind of situation. Indeed, most "people average about three minutes on a task and average about two minutes using any electronic tool or paper document before switching" (Mark, 2005).
This "work fragmentation" can be detrimental to your productivity because your mind needs some time to stop thinking about the previous task and focus entirely on the new one. It means that part of your attention is squandered on the former task instead of being used to work on the new one, a phenomenon called "attention residue" (Hammond, 2016). So if you constantly switch between different tasks, your attention is even more divided between the various tasks. Plus, "it often requires a start-up time to orient oneself to an activity. Spending too short of a time in a complex project could result in a low level of accomplishment" (Mark, 2005).
As you can see, cognitive switching isn't the most productive way to work.
However, as mentioned in the introduction, things are rarely black or white. So even cognitive switching has some benefits. First, it seems that the problem of "attention residue" caused by switching from a task to another is reduced when there is a strict deadline to finish a task. So if you have a deadline for a task, your mind will be much more concentrated on the task at hand and not on the previous one. And your mind will also reduce the attention residue of that task once it is done, allowing you to focus on the next task and its deadline (Hammond, 2016). Maybe that's why the Pomodoro technique is so effective? If you don't know this technique, don't worry. We'll cover it in a bit!
Another benefit of cognitive switching is that it can help "refresh" the mind and foster new ideas (Mark, 2005). Consequently, if you're stuck on a task and need to change your mind, it could be productive to switch to another task.
Multitasking, not as bad as you might think
Now, let's talk about multitasking, which, I remind you, is the aptitude to tackle more than one task at the same time.
Some examples of multitasking are: working while listening to music, washing the dishes and listening to a podcast, watching a movie and looking at your social media feed, texting while driving, etc.
Chances are you do similar multitasking combinations regularly since a study found that 99% of UK adults use two media or more simultaneously at least once a week, for an average multitasking time of two hours daily (Office of Communications, 2015).
You probably noticed that some of the combinations mentioned above are more propitious to multitasking than others. For example, washing the dishes doesn't require a lot of attention or executive function, so listening to a podcast at the same time isn't too hard. However, you won't be as focused on the podcast as if you were only listening to it. So if it's an educational podcast you're listening to because you want to retain information, multitasking might not be the best option. Anyhow, we can agree this is a combination of tasks where multitasking doesn't affect your performance too much.
However, if you text while driving, your driving performance will suffer a lot. The reason for that is that both tasks require a lot of attention, memory, and executive functions to be accomplished. So their combination exceeds the available cognitive resources (Hammond, 2016).
Please, don't text and drive. It's dangerous, and a text message isn't worth losing your life or killing someone else. Ok, that's it for my prevention campaign. Let's get back to multitasking!
Moreover, multitasking tends to be more difficult when tasks require similar thinking processes, like talking on the phone and writing a text message concomitantly (Hammond, 2016). On the contrary, activities like walking and talking, working and listening to music, or watching TV and replying to messages, are easier to do at the same time because they involve different thinking processes.
Also, we could be more efficient at multitasking when we're relaxed and doing creative tasks. On the contrary, multitasking is more difficult when you need logical thinking or when you're stressed (Fischer & Hommel, 2012).
As you can see, multitasking isn't always bad for your performance. But you do have to choose the combination of tasks carefully if you want to maintain your productivity high.
Tips to help you stay focused
Although we saw that multitasking and cognitive switching could be positive in some instances, it's generally better to focus on one task and avoid work fragmentation. So to help you refrain from multitasking and/or cognitive switching, here are some tips that might help you:
This one is pretty obvious but not so easy to put into practice: try to be mindful about what you're doing. Whenever you catch yourself trying to switch between tasks or do two things at the same time, make an effort to stop yourself before you give in to the temptation. The more you train your brain to notice when you're about to multitask or fragment your work, the easier it will become to stop doing it. Of course, as mentioned above, if you consciously decide to multitask or fragment your work because it presents an advantage, then, by all means, do it!
Use the Pomodoro technique. It's a technique that consists of uninterrupted 25-minute periods of work, followed by short 5-minute breaks. Then, after four such series, there is a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes. This technique is very effective because it gives you a set period to focus on one task only. Plus, as mentioned above, you give yourself a deadline to finish the task, which helps your brain focus entirely on the task at hand. If you want to know more about this technique, I explain how I use it in this article.
Try to batch your tasks. Batching is a great technique to reduce cognitive switching because it consists of grouping similar tasks together. For example, instead of writing one article every week of the month, I could batch their writing in one or two afternoons. Then, I could batch their editing into another block of time. I could also create all the visuals for Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest in one shot, and so on. This way, I could avoid switching back and forth from different types of tasks in the same morning or afternoon.
This one is pretty obvious, but try to limit distractions when you want to focus on a single task. Of course, this means turning off all non-essential notifications and even leaving your phone in another room, if possible. You can also close all unnecessary tabs on your browser, close the door of your office (if you have one), use noise-cancelling headphones, etc. I talk about different types of distractions at work and how to eliminate/limit them in this article.
Practice meditation regularly. Meditation has many advantages, one of which is to help increase concentration. If you struggle with focusing on one thing at a time, meditating might help you with that! I wrote a review of three meditation apps to help you get started with meditation if you're interested!
I hope this article will help you be more focused and productive when you work!
I wish you a zenly organized week,
Cognitive shifting. (2021). Wikipedia. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_shifting
Fischer, R. & Hommel, B. (2012). Deep thinking increases task-set shielding and reduces shifting flexibility in dual-task performance. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22336726/
Hammon, C. (2016). Why your brain likes it when you multi-task. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20160218-why-multi-tasking-might-not-be-such-a-bad-idea
Human multitasking. (2021). Wikipedia. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_multitasking
Mark, G. (2005). No Task Left Behind? Examining the Nature of Fragmented Work. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/221516226_No_Task_Left_Behind_Examining_the_Nature_of_Fragmented_Work
Office of Communications. (2015). Media Multitasking. Report on findings of analysis of our Digital Day research. Retrieved from: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/47261/media_multitaskingl.pdf