The Big Idea
Busy is a four-letter word. It doesn’t mean happy, it doesn’t mean better, and it certainly doesn’t mean productive.
Questions I Answer
- How can I do better at multitasking?
- How can I feel less busy?
- Does multitasking increase my productivity?
Key Topics in the Show
How the brain actually works when you multitask.
Why doing 2 tasks at once actually takes you longer than you think.
How I got over being a “busy” person.
What multitasking actually is and why it doesn’t work.
Learn how the movie “Inside Out” got it right.
What the cost of multitasking is on your productivity.
Resources and Links
- Watch this Selective Attention Video to see how well you multitask
Hello, hello everyone! Welcome to Productivity Paradox. I’m your host, Tanya Dalton, and this is Episode Nine.
Today we are talking about multitasking. I know many of you are familiar with it, because many of you implement multitasking in your day. Let me start with a quick question. Do you multitask? Raise your hand if you’re a multitasker. I’m guessing that a lot of you have your hands up. Or, if you’re working out at your gym, you have your virtual hand up in your mind! I want you to keep your hand up if you are proud of how well you multitask, because it gives you these ninja-like productivity skills.
Okay, is your hand still up? Because, you’re going to want to put it down. You know why? Multitasking is killing your productivity. I know you think that tackling two, or three tasks all at once, is efficient. I get that, but it’s not. It’s actually the exact opposite. That’s a truth bomb right there. Multitasking is killing your productivity.
Why do we believe that multitasking is the best way to work? Think about the last job that you applied for. Chances are it listed the ability to multitask in the job description. There’s not many job descriptions today that don’t list multitasking, so it must be a good thing. Because otherwise employers wouldn’t be asking for it, if it was bad. But think of it this way, businesses look at things in terms of money, and it makes sense on paper. They think, “If I hire someone who says they can do two jobs, I don’t have to hire two people. I only hire one person. I’ve just saved money.”
That totally makes sense, if we were robots. But we’re not. We’re people, and we have brains, and our brains work differently than machines. Even big businesses are wrong. But I want you to also look at the messages that we receive from society today. Just look for the hashtag “hustle” on social media. I guarantee if you go there
right now, there are thousands, and thousands, and thousands of posts there. I bet there are thousands of posts just from today alone. Because “hustle” is like a badge of pride, that we are constantly hustling.
To be honest with you, hustle is just another word for busy. Don’t we want less hustle, and more grace? We want less work, and more outcome, which means more happiness. I’ve said this before, and this will not be the last time you hear this from me, but we have got to stop the glorification of “busy”.
Busy and hustle are the same thing. As I said, and I will be saying this again, and again throughout these podcasts, because that’s a key part of my platform, of what I believe in. Because, I think we see it glorified everywhere. I see, “I am very busy. I’m so very busy,” on T-shirts, I see it on coffee mugs, I’ve even seen it as pieces of art for your wall to hang in your office. Because you need to be reminded that you’re busy?
Busy is a four letter word. It really is, because it does not mean happy, it doesn’t mean better, and it certainly does not mean productive. Busy, and hustling means you’re really just doing too much. If you’re doing too much, you’re stretching yourself really thin, and you’re not giving the time to yourself to focus on your
priorities. We have to stop taking pride in being so busy, and start taking pride in our productivity.
I’m saying this to you not, you know, up on my soapbox. I’m saying it to you, because I’m a recovered busy person. I totally used to take pride in being busy, until I started to really understand what multitasking is. Because, there is a lot of pride in multitasking. Especially from us women. We love that our brain works differently from men. We love that we can do multiple things at once. I’ve been very proud of it myself.
I used to feel that way, but when I took the time to really look at the research and understand how the brain works, I began to realize it was actually working against me. Let’s back up and talk about, first of all, what is multitasking?
There are three kinds of multitasking. Trying to perform more than one task at a time. Switching from one task to another, and then, performing two or more tasks in rapid succession. Now, multitasking uses the same areas of your brain, at the same time. Don’t confuse it with background tasking, which are things that use different areas of your brain. Like watching TV while exercising, or listening to this podcast, while driving in your car. Those are not multitasking, those are background tasking. Those really are efficient ways to use your time.
But what a lot of us call multitasking, is actually switch tasking. It’s juggling two tasks, or more, by refocusing your attention back and forth between the projects. That makes us feel like things are moving faster, right? It gives us this illusion of doing things simultaneously. But you’re not really doing them at the same time. You’re actually switching back and forth rapidly.
A task that involves the same part of your brain, like reading your email and talking on your phone, cannot be done at the same time. I guarantee you’ve experienced that before, some time in your life. When you’ve been in the phone with a friend, and you start to realize the person that you’re chatting with isn’t 100% there. See, you start to realize it, because you hear these long pauses, or you’ll notice change in their tone.
That’s signs that the brain is moving back and forth between the tasks. This movement back and forth is not seamless, so neither one of the activities are really being done well. Your brain can take on one activity at a time, for each section that it has. You want to make sure that you’re utilizing each one as well as possible. Whatever you’re working on, needs to take up the majority of your attention and your productivity.
There’s not a lot of room left over for the other things. Now, there’s room for automatic behaviors, like chewing gum, or walking. Those kind of fall into the background tasking area, because they’re automatic, and they don’t require thought in that same area. It helps to understand how detrimental it is, by looking at the brain and how it works.
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So, how does the brain work? Especially when multitasking. If you’ve seen the movie Inside Out, you know there’s a whole control center in your brain, and to be honest with you, that is actually frighteningly accurate. It’s right there above your eyes, and it’s our executive section of our brain. It works essentially like a conductor, maybe of an orchestra, or you know what, of a train. Let’s think of it that way.
What it does is it takes the plans for your future behaviors and it helps you to ignore the distractions. Like a conductor, it decides, which track it’s going to go on. Is it going to go on the right track, or is it gonna go on the left track? Which track can I go on? Because the train cannot go on both tracks at the same time, right? Your brain is the same way.
That executive section of your brain works to help move your thoughts and your activities in one direction, or another. As an example, think about watching TV, while someone else is having a conversation in the room. What that executive section of your brain does, is it will prioritize the visual information, because you’re wanting to watch a TV show. Then it dampens down the auditory information. It takes one, makes it the focus and it turns the other one down. Because, you can’t have both of those going at the same time. You wouldn’t be able to know what’s going on, on the television.
It really has two distinct stages. Goal-shifting, “I want to do this now, instead of that,” so, “I want to listen to the TV now, instead of the conversation.” Or rule activation, “I’m turning on the rules for this, and turning off the rules for that.” Your brain in that case is saying, “I’m turning on the rules for watching TV, and turning off the rules for listening to conversations.”
Both help shift between the tasks, without you even really being aware that that switch has taken place. It’s like a light-switch: on, and off. Flip it on, and flip it off. Your brain cannot be on and off, at the same time. That’s when your conflict arises, when you have environmental demands for productivity, or safety.
When you’re driving and you’re on the phone, and you’re texting. That split second of focusing on your phone takes away the focus from your driving, and that’s especially important when your environment is not set up to protect you.
That frontal region, that executive section, actually evolved to help us hunt. Back in our caveman days, we had hunters and we had gatherers. We knew that when we’re hunting, or gathering, we had to keep track of the fellow people in our tribe, and also keep track of the prey. It was really important for us to have this brain development.
Some animals don’t have this, but essentially, this was our little ticket to putting us at the top of the food chain. It made us the dominant species, which is great. But it also made us a little bit overconfident with those skills. We tend to underestimate our ability to handle these multiple tasks. Because right now, we don’t worry about being lunch for the sabre-tooth tiger, right? We don’t to worry about that.
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The consequences aren’t nearly as severe in your office, but they are when you’re thinking about productivity, and they really are when you’re on the road. I’m gonna share with you this very frightening statistic. The National Safety Council reports that one in four car accidents, are caused by cellphone use.
One in four car accidents could be avoided, if you weren’t on your phone. That is 25%. That is a crazy amount of accidents, when you think about how many accidents take place each and every day. That is a lot of accidents that we could get rid of altogether. I’m really conscious of this as a mom. Especially now that Jack is approaching driving age, which is, to be honest with you, a scary prospect in itself!
But I have to make sure that I am modeling good driving behavior for him, because I cannot tell him not to be on his phone, if I’m on my phone, and it’s hard. I’m not gonna lie to you. I’m not gonna tell you, “This was such an easy thing for me. I just put it in my glove box. I don’t think about it.”
No. I put it aside, and when it pings, and it beeps, or it rings, it takes every ounce of my energy to not grab it and get on it. But I know I shouldn’t, because I know it’s not safe for me, or my kids who are in the car, and I know I’m showing my son, that he needs to try to ignore it too.
I’m not gonna tell you that this is an easy thing to do, just to change this habit of multitasking, but I’m going to tell you it’s important to really work hard, to effect this change. Because, productivity has a cost when you are multitasking. There is the time taken to adjust the mental control settings. Those settings in your brain compete for each other, for the two tasks that you want to perform.
What they’re doing, is it’s spending time with this virtual tug of war. Task A has the one end of the rope, and task B has the other end. They are pulling back and forth, and back and forth. There’s a lot of strain on that rope. Both sides are not really getting the full effects of getting the attention.
Then, when finally the rope goes one way, or the other, the setting of your brain has to move over, and there’s a lot of energy that goes into that act of switching those gears over. That switch takes place in a fraction of a second. That seems like it’s so minor. But think of it like the swim lanes at the Olympics. Those fractions of seconds, those milliseconds add up, and they add up really quickly. Especially, when you need to hit the brakes to avoid an accident.
Or even in non-life threatening sections of our life, it does add up. Think of it like little drops in a bucket. One drop doesn’t seem like a lot, two drops not a lot, 20 drops, 40 drops. Before you know it, that bucket is full and overflowing, and that is essentially, time that we are taking away.
Experts estimate that switching between these tasks, this virtual tug of war that’s happening right now in your brain, it can cause a 40% loss in productivity. You want to know the worst part? You tend to be more error prone. You’re working slower and less effectively. People argue that multitasking is more efficient. They say,
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“I’m getting more done.” But are you, if you have more errors, and it actually takes you more time?
The more errors you have, the more you have to go back and fix those errors, instead of handling it one time, and being done with it. It’s not really that efficient. The next time you go to multitask, ask yourself this, “Which is more important? To be efficient, or effective?” Because you cannot be effective, if your brain is continuing with this tug of war. Doing two things at once makes you miss obvious things.
Here’s a crazy study the Western Washington University did, where they took college students who were walking across the campus, and these students were all talking on their phones. They were not texting, they were looking around, and talking on the phone. 75% of those students, did not notice a clown riding a unicycle that was right next to them. 75%, a clown on a unicycle, on a college campus.
That’s called in-attentional blindness, because you’re not paying attention, because your attention is focused on your phone. When they’re looking around at the surroundings, they’re not actually registering. Think about that, next time you’re talking on the phone, while you drive. That in-attentional blindness can really make a difference.
I know you think, “Oh, that’s probably not true for me.” What I’ve done is, I’ve given some links to little short, short videos for you to check out to see how well you do with your in-attentional blindness. You’ll be able to find those in our show notes, which you can find at inkwellpress.com/podcast. Then just click on Episode Nine, and you’ll find them there.
They’re kind of fun to do, especially if you don’t know the premise behind them, so they’re good to show to other people too, to see what a difference it can make when your brain is multitasking.
Why are we tricked into thinking that this idea of multitasking is the best way? Well, we’ve trained our brains into bad habits, and like bad habits, we have to break ourselves of them. Why do we have these as bad habits? When you complete a task, whether it’s a big task, or a small task, you put that check mark down on their paper, you’re hit with a small amount of Dopamine.
It’s kind of like a little tiny high from crossing that thing off your list. That encourages our brains to become addicted, which is a good thing in some regards in that it continues to push you forward to get work done. However, if you’re checking things off quickly, it’s creating a dangerous loop. The next thing you know, your brain is Jonesing for another hit of that Dopamine and you feel like you’re accomplishing a lot, even when you’re not.
Really, the latest scientific research agrees. They actually refer to items like: checking email, or Twitter, or Facebook, as a neural addiction. It’s like an addiction, and that’s kind of crazy. That’s why it’s such a hard habit to break. There’s a study at the University of London, that showed that subjects that multitasked, while performing cognitive tasks, experienced significant IQ drops.
When you’re multitasking, your IQ drops. Here’s the scary part. Those drops were similar to what you found in individuals who either skipped a night of sleep, or who are high or marijuana. That’s crazy, right?
Like most drugs, there’s that side effects of these steady hits of Dopamine. Your body, your brain, is wanting to consistently check things off its list. But Dopamine’s best friend is Cortisol. Cortisol is our stress hormone. When we’re constantly shifting gears, we’re pumping up the stress in our brain, and that’s part of what causes exhaustion. Even, when work has barely begun.
You know that feeling of being brain-dead at the end of the day? That’s Cortisol. We really want to avoid having a lot of Cortisol. The University of California, Irvine researchers actually measured the heart-rates of employees with, and without constant access to office email. Those who had a steady stream of messages, stayed in a perpetual high alert mode, with these high, high, high heart rates.
Versus those without constant email access, who did less multitasking. They were far less stressed. We like to think about our smartphones as really helping us get more done, and making things less stressful. But they’re kind of doing the opposite. It’s okay to shut your phone off. It’s okay not to be in constant contact. That’s a hard thing to really accept.
But that’s something that we are going to be working on together, because the good news is, there’s a solution. I think by now you know, I’ve hammered this home throughout this entire podcast. Multitasking is not the best method of productivity. I could sit here and I could spend another 20 minutes giving more research and more statistics.
But let’s focus on the solution, because there is one. We’re gonna be talking about that in our next episode. In Episode Ten. We are going to be focusing on mono-tasking. We’re gonna be practicing ways that we can implement it, and we’re gonna be talking about what are different things you can do to change your environment to break this bad habit.
Because, that’s what it is. It’s a bad habit. Let’s think of it that way. A bad habit can always be broken, and that’s what we’re going to be doing together. I’d love to hear from you what you think about multitasking, now that you’ve heard the research and I’ve given you 5000 different statistics on it.
Let’s start a conversation. You know you can find me at inkwellpress.com, or we can have a conversation on social media using the username Inkwell Press, on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. You can find me there and I love to connect with you. You can also use the hashtag: Productivity Paradox, as a way for me to go through your posts, and I can find you that way as well.
Alright, so we will be talking about a solution in our next episode, and I really look forward to that. Until next time, happy planning.
**This transcript is created by AI, so please excuse any typos, misspellings and grammar mistakes.
Tanya Dalton is a woman who had dedicated her life to helping women be more productive. She hosts a top rated productivity podcast for women, she is a motivational keynote speaker and a best selling author.