Bloggers: Are You Still Multitasking?

nowIf you think juggling phone calls, e-mail, instant messages and computer work makes you more effective or productive then several studies say you are wrong.  Their results point in the opposite direction and highlight the fact that the more heavily you multitask the less effective and productive you become. It seems the more multitasking we do the more mediocre the results are.

I have been multitasking most of the time when I’m online for years, presumably so I can get more done.  But when I’m offline I prefer to focus on a single task at a time and I  get more done and make fewer mistakes. When I’m not online I divide large tasks into smaller “chunks” that I work on for about 45 minutes at a time and then I take a short break. This year began cutting back on the multitasking I do while online. How about you?

LeoBabauta’s  How NOT to Multi-task — a guide to working as simply as possible for your mental health peaked my interest and I did some multitasking research. A 2009 study by three Stanford University professors on cognitive control concluded that chronic media multitaskers are more susceptible to distraction.

Ophir, Nass, and Wagner’s study (PDF) is significant in many respects. Research in media multitasking is in its early stages, although in recent years, media multitasking has become an increasingly popular phenomenon because of the development and convergence of many forms of new media and technologies  Media multitasking and its inherent mental habits of dividing attention, switching attention, and keeping multiple trains of thought in working memory have significant implications for the way people think, communicate, socialize, learn, and understand the world.

Peter Bregman’s How (and Why) to Stop Multitasking lays out the downside of multitasking and how to break the pattern. He reports, “I lost nothing by not multitasking.”  David Silverman presents the opposing side in  his In Defense of Multitasking.  Silverman believes, “The truth is, we need multitasking as much as we need air.” But what caught my attention were these two points:

The information age wherein people working and communicating on digital devices all day is being reflected in the stats.  In The Rise of Digital Multitasking [STATS] Ben Parr of Mashable reports according to a new survey from Deloitte, More Americans than ever are multitasking while the watch TV. Multitasking has become a more prominent behavior of U.S. consumers.

Tim Ferriss Guest Lecture at Princeton Q&A

Kicking the multitasking habit

We live in a world where multitasking is commonplace. Breaking the multitasking habit will not be easy but it can be done.  The alternative to multitasking is scheduling blocks of uninterrupted time to work in and then carrying through and getting the work done.  Allow no distraction or interruptions — focus.

  1. Make a to-do list.
  2. Prioritize items on the to-do list.
  3. Map out blocks of time to create a timetable from your to-do list. The time blocks can vary in duration as required.
  4. Assign “chunks” of work to time blocks.
  5. Start working.
  6. Tune out all distractions.
  7. Turn off your phone.
  8. Shut down your computer.
  9. Focus on what you are doing.
  10. When you feel a need to boot your computer and check your email – don’t do it! Pacify yourself by reflecting on the truth. The email and Tweets will be still be there when you are done.

53 thoughts on “Bloggers: Are You Still Multitasking?

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  3. I often multitask at work, dealing with e-mails, logging calls into the system while at the same time taking phone calls from customers. I do tend to focus on most of the little things and forget other little things rather than the bigger picture so this has helped :)

  4. Hey, TimeThief

    I’m definitely guilty of multi-tasking. There’s always so much to do and so little time. I do try to divide my tasks into smaller chunks, but am sometimes unsuccessful.

    I thought about outsourcing some of my tasks, which I may have to do in the future.

    Great tips, esp. with checking email (no more than twice a day as mentioned in the video).

    Thanks for that!

    • I’m trying to break the habit myself but that’s a challenge becaus part of the work I do is dnine online. It’s a balancing act and there are times where I not acheiving balance.

  5. It’s almost been subtle, the way that the technology which was supposed to free us from work and give us more leisure time (while machines do the work) has evolved into more of a yoke that keeps us forever connected. There are too many of us that define ourselves by our work – “I am a teacher, I am a business man, I am an accountant, etc” – and consequently accept the intrusion of that work on our time so much that we don’t think enough about how its demands force us to divide our attention. Dividing our attention is what multi-tasking is all about. Slowly, we have let it invade more and more of our lives. We miss so much when we focus on so much.

    • It’s almost been subtle, the way that the technology which was supposed to free us from work and give us more leisure time (while machines do the work) has evolved into more of a yoke that keeps us forever connected.

      You’re right on. The more we divide our attention the more distracted and less productive we become. :)

  6. In terms of well being and productivity, less really often means more.

    Better to take a little longer over doing a single task than trying to juggle several things at once and take twice as long. I am guilty of multi-tasking ineffectively!

    Great post.

    Phil

    • Hello there Phil,
      Thanks for commenting here. I’m also guilty of not acting in my own best interests. I developed a habit of multitasking and it took me research as well as comparison studies of my own online productivity when multitasking and when single pointed. The results were what lead me to changing my approach. I am still struggling not to be responsive to the desire to be everywhere checking everything at the same time. That’s dopamine addiction for you — kicking this habit is not easy, but it is worth it. :)

  7. Good post! I too have been working on focusing. I definitely am not multitasking. I use the method of working for a chunk of time – about an hour – and then take a short break. I used to have my email turned on to check constantly, so I was always distracted. Now it only check periodically and I don’t respond to the messages when I am focusing on a task. These are all excellent tips and I’m reviewing to see what else I might do. Thanks!

  8. I’ve always been a list maker, but when it comes to multi-tasking, I’m like you: I used to do it and now I don’t….or at least I try not to do it. It’s so hard when you’re at the computer with so many different internet tabs open, notices going off that I have a comment/email/who knows what else. Recently, I decided to cut down on my distractions. I limit my time on the internet. That’s made it so much easier to write. No distractions = no break in thinking = more words on the page. I hope I can continue this — the internet is so tempting!

    • Hi Janene,
      I filp flopped this summer back to multitasking and didn’t recognize I had done so until winter. I was obviously in a state of denial about that. The good news is I’m on track again. If my hand worked well enough to be writing in longhand without pain I would not have been seduced into mutlitasking. I too am spending less time online and when spring arrives I wil be enjoying spending some of my time gardening. :)

  9. I recently wrote about something like this where technology, although making everything simpler and faster, is really creating a society that feels we must keep doing more and more. The more “free” time we have, the more we must be doing. Technology makes it easier to do more but does it really help us in the end?

    • Hi Marc,
      There are only 24 hours in a day and the machines were supposed to save us time. I believe they do that, provided we choose to exercise common sense. Exercising common sense means not becoming addicted to being “switched on” all of the time, rather than being single pointed and completing a succession of tasks, without the distractions that characterize multitasking.

  10. I’m making my list and prioritizing, as your ten item list suggests. I love point #10. “…reflect on the truth”. Grand words that will keep me on my path in all areas.

    Kathleen

    • @Kathleen,
      Checking my email used to be what I did the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night. Throughout the day I used to check again and also log into Twitter. Now I’m limiting myself.

      I faced the truth at 8 AM in the morning there is rarely anything in the email that needs instant attention. I don’t have to check it at all until 11 AM so that’s what I’m doing now.

      Also there’s no need for me to check it before I go to sleep. Whatever is there will have to wait and I don’t need or want my mind to be at work all night long thinking about what my reply will be the next day. I need to get a good night’s sleep and only I can make sure that happens.

      Thanks for commenting and be strong. This is not an easy change to make. :)

  11. I too was inspired by Zen Habits and have been trying to do less multi-tasking, I think Leo has some great suggestions on how to do it, but it isn’t easy.

    Not only is there the Pleasure Principal, there is simple peer pressure, friends, family and co-workers expect us to be able to do multiple things all at once, for us to be quicker, better etc., without realizing it is a lose/lose situation.

    • Hi Thera,
      It’s so good to hear from you. I’m not finding it easy to withdraw from multitasking either. There are times when I must be available for our business but when that’s not the case I have to compel myself not to allow my monkey mind to start peaking at email and Twitter while I am researching or composting content either for my contracted work or for my blogs.

      I expected this to be a habit that would be easier to kick than it has been. Now I’m determined not to let the expectations of others and my monkey to control me and my work flow. One cannot have a flow experience when multitasking and those are the most creative experiences of all. Leo’s suggestions are workable for me and I’m slowly making headway.

      Best wishes to you. We are in this together. lol :)

  12. Great post! applicable to our immediate busy lives……multi-tasking is for computers, not us…..; )

  13. Would like to add onto my latest comments:

    For employers, it’s better to express that you have a capacity (provided you can give real life examples that your references/listed resume achievements will show) to juggle priorities throughout the day with shifting work/customer service priorities.

    Multi-tasking is too micro-based..little wee things of conversation pieces, in between answering a customer standing in front you. Multi-tasking with computer-based technology focuses too narrowly on pressing buttons, looking screens, making sense of fragments of information….

    REAL multi-tasking or working smoothly and fast in a coordinated way (emphasis here), means how to to keep the bigger picture in your head while also simultaneously focused on key (not every) small details that create the big picture solution/vision. How to think BOTH creatively/fast outside of the box, while remaining highly disciplined and focused in your logic and problem-solving with a great capacity to shift suddenly because one more variable, unknown factor was brought to light for you to consider.

    The world continues to need future generations like this, while also present generations demonstrate and mentor this with only partial reliance on techology.

    Technology does break down occasionally so a person’s skills must be wide, strong and sharp enough to deal with the unexpected and not get upset much.

    • @Jean
      Thanks for submitting your latest comment. It contains a lot of food for thought and I appreciate you taking the time to think about this deeply and then comment again.

  14. As you would probably guess I’m not a multitasker. I like to enjoy whatever I’m doing at the moment, and you can’t do that if you’re being pulled in ten directions at once. All that busyness and “getting things done” seems a little crazy to me. I’d rather be idle all day than drive myself nuts.

    • Hi NP,
      Thanks for your comment. I have found muself backing away from multitasking when online. While I will continue to do some multitasking when I’m online such as answering telephone calls and doing some things that need to be done when it comes to running our business. However, when it comes to creating content for my blogs I won’t be multitasking anymore.

  15. “This is the truth. And managers have been taking notice. I recently read on Yahoo! that the word, “multitasker” is no longer a good word to put on resumes.”

    Very interesting.
    I just say multi-tasking during the biz day!

  16. Painful truths timethief. Thank you! Does this dopamine business explain why I sit here so late at night wide awake in front of the screen, but put me in front of the TV or a novel these days and I fall asleep within five minutes. Oh dear – self-discipline is not my strong point, but I think I have to do something today. Once upon a time I played computer games, I stopped when I realised my hands were hurting and never went back. My problem is not multi tasking, I don’t really believe in multi tasking, I think it’s an illusion. My problem is doing a little and no more, like the proverbial packet of chocolate biscuits. For me it would be easier just not to blog at all, than to do a little. That’s an addict talking, right?

  17. As far as I am concerned, it is not actually multi tasking that distract you at all. For me the worst distractor is the my iPhone with all its apps and messages and emails!

    • 1. Well, if not you, then who is in charge of how much distraction you allow to pervade your working day?

      2. Could it be your childlike monkey mind (WOO HOO! kid with a new toy) and a dopamine addiction that prevents you from turning multiple electronic devices off?

      3. Does your ego thrill at being always accessible to everyone everywhere as if you are a prestigous brain surgeon with unique skills who is on call?

      4. How many hours in the day are there when you turn these devices turned off?

      I do believe that these are the questions we need to ask ourselves so we can act on being directors of our own well-being.

  18. This is the truth. And managers have been taking notice. I recently read on Yahoo! that the word, “multitasker” is no longer a good word to put on resumes.

    • That’s interesting. Thanks so much for sharing it.

      Our brains cannot pay truly attention to two things at once, even if we can fool ourselves into thinking they can. We can switch between things very quickly but doing that means most large tasks take longer to accomplish and are less accurate when completed than if we had focused solely on completing them.

      Given the research and my own obesaervations as an employer I would now be far more inclined to choose a candidate who did not include “multitasking’ on their resume than a candiate who did include it.

  19. I don’t read this one of your blogs as much, but I had to this time because I’m so much in agreement with the studies. If we can’t do one thing well, how can we possibly do two or more better? The pressure to multitask at work comes from poor organization and the desire to increase profits by cutting staff to a level where it must be done. Get your machines to multitask, not people.

    Thanks for helping so many with your useful tips!

    • Hi Mike,
      The point you riase is a great one. Machines can multitask without any damaging results; people can’t. Machines that were seigned to free up our time have done that but our desire to be continually flooded with information has worked against us. We have become addicted and enslaved. Worse still we are in a state of denial about that.

      I’m finding there is a cross-over when it comes to subjects I blog on here and in my personal blog. This time I chose to publish on multitasking here but I do believe the topic would have “fit” into both. As I have now reduced my multitasking time, I may do a follow up article on my experience of the change. Maybe it will appear in this blog or maybe it will appear in the other one. ;)

      Thanks for being such a faithful reader and for commenting too. :)

    • Thanks for updating us on that. The accident stats I looked into were American stats. I din’t have the time to research Canadian stats before my computer breakdowns when I lost all the data I had compiled. :(

  20. I read recently that the pleasure principle is dwarfed by the hunting principle and the attraction of unread emails, unseen retweets, etc. lies in the ‘I wonder what might be there’ addiction.

    Just saying…

    • Hi David,
      I think you are right on. This is what I found in wikipedia on The Pleasure Principle which is born out by the references found there and others too.

      “In Freudian psychology, the pleasure principle is the psychoanalytic concept describing people seeking pleasure and avoiding suffering (pain) in order to satisfy their biological and psychological needs. Furthermore, the counterpart concept, the reality principle, describes people choosing to defer gratification of a desire when circumstantial reality disallows its immediate gratification. In infancy and early childhood, the Id rules behavior by obeying only the pleasure principle. Maturity is learning to endure the pain of deferred gratification, when reality requires it; thus, the psychoanalitic Sigmund Freud proposes that “an ego thus educated has become ‘reasonable’; it no longer lets itself be governed by the pleasure principle, but obeys the reality principle, which also, at bottom, seeks to obtain pleasure, but pleasure which is assured through taking account of reality, even though it is pleasure postponed and diminished.”

      Given all the research that I read on the dopamine cycle and multitasking, and the fact that we have an instant gratification generation who are always “switched on” and who are raising their kids to be always “switched on” too, The Pleasure Principle and dopamine addiction surely do have a place in this discussion.

  21. There are some human activities where some forms of multi-tasking is ….illegal or simply dangerous:

    Cellphone use, texting while driving any vehicle..that includes any car, any vehicle and even a bicycle (I’ve seen some cyclists who do this while riding. And I’m a cyclist ..) There have been enough deaths, not just injuries where a driver’ attention was dealing with these technologies and not paying attention to the road.

    The reverse is true, for pedestrians, yapping along while crossing the road. Last year, a woman died while she was talking on her cellphone and crossing road. She was hit by a car. Of course, one wonders why the driver did not stop in time.

    Multi-tasking while performing more than 1 activity, does tend to slow me down, not speed up my execution of each task. As a university student awhile ago, I never enjoyed playing song lyrics since I found it distracting from reading a complex text. After several hrs., I ended up with a headache. So it had to be instrumental music, preferably relaxing stuff.

    I haven’t read the referenced articles, but am sure this adds fuel to this hot topic.

    • Hello Jean,
      You have raised an extremely important point. The dangerous consquences that can eshew from multitasking. We have all heard about the accidents that have led to serious injuries. According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, auto deaths involving cell phones have increased 28 percent between 2005 and 2008.

      One example is the case of James L. Caskey Jr., a former marathon runner, was hit by a car in 2008 while riding his bicycle in his North Naples, Fla. neighborhood. The 62-year-old died from his injuries. A wrongful death lawsuit has been filed in state court which alleges that the driver was texting while driving. http://www.bicyclelaw.com/news/n.cfm/texting-while-driving-caused-death-of-north-naples-bicyclist-co

      Feb 03, 2011 (Fergus Falls Daily Journal – McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) — Kayla Carry sent or received 15 text messages in the minutes prior to a Sept. 15 head-on collision that resulted in the death of 77-year-old Lucille Vogt and left Carry critically injured. Carry is now facing 10 years in prison for vehicular homicide in connection with the head-on collision that drives home the seriousness of using cellular telephones while driving.

      A 10-year-old Italian boy, deeply engrossed in his PSP game wandering along a subway platform in Loreto, Milan fell onto the subway tracks. He was rescued by an off-duty policeman. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1353223/Hero-policeman-Alessandro-Micalizzi-jumped-rail-tracks-rescue-boy-fell-platform-engrossed-Sony-PSP.html

      A recent news article revealed a woman who was texting in a mall and fell into a fountain due to her multitasking. Even though she knew the layout of the mall and was aware of the poistion of the fountain she was so distracted she fell in. Though she was not injured badly she is sueing. The reason she is sueing is because the security guards put the video of her accident on youtube. Her pride is wounded, don’t you know? Oh right and she is also sueing because she feels the fountain needs a fence around it so this doesn’t happen to anyone else. Deluded dopamine addict who refuses to accept responsibility for the accident that would never ocurred if she had been paying attention to where she was going. http://abcnews.go.com/US/fountain-falling-texter-cathy-cruz-marrero-dont-text/story?id=12685189&page=1

      A woman talking on her cell phone died after she walked onto Oregon 224 in the darkness and was struck by a sport utility vehicle. http://www.oregon.gov/OSP/

      I started researching multitasking before my series of computer breakdowns and I picked it up again prior to publishing this article. I spent almost a month researching as I wanted to know how I could reduce stress and become more productive. The finger of shame and blame pointed right back at me — OMG! I’m addicted. Without doubt those who do multitask become dopamine addicts who are in a state of denial. The computer breakdowns gave me an unplugged opportunity to digest what I read, accept it and act upon it.

      Once again we find a point of commonality based on experience. :) I also discovered way back in college that relaxing instrumental music was my friend when was studying and up beat energizing music distracted me and resulted in headaches.

  22. The only thing I multitask at is cooking, as really it’s impossible to cook without multitasking… watch this pan, take that pan off, wash the dishes while the water in the pan comes to the boil, shoo the husband out of the kitchen, answer the phone and yell that I’m cooking, dash back to mop up the boiled over pan….

    Other things: I sit myself down, I get engrossed in what I’m doing, I forget that anything else exists.
    ;)

    • Hi Val,
      When we cook we do divide our attention of a sequence of over lapping small tasks that make up the whole process of prepartion of food for consumption. There are other common examples we can site to when doing household tasks like turning the washer on and vaccuming while our clothes wash and even wearing ear buds and listening to music while we vaccum. But the point is that being somewhat distracted while doing those mundane tasks is unlikely to result in any sigificant loss of productivity.

      Our monkey minds are always busy day and night probing into the past and projecting future scenarios. When learning how to meditate students struggle to learn how to ifnore the monkey mind and focus on the now moment. Until they stop chasing and grasping the thoughts the moneky mind produces they do not achieve the shift into meditation. Meditation Practice: Monkey Mind.

    • Hello there,
      We’re surrounded by gadgets that demand our attention, constantly fragmenting our ability to properly focus on the task at hand. If we are open to allowing the messages these gadgets carry to control our choices then we will be exhausted at day’s and and will suffer from insomnia as we will find it difficult to “switch off” the mind so we can sleep and our bodies can rejuvenate.

      Multitasking is more exhausting than a single pointed focus on performing a series of tasks in succession. There’s no doubt about it. We become dopamine junkies when we multitask and that makes multitasking a self-defeating choice that we are adverse to recognizing.

      Dopamine is one of the most important neurotransmitters for attention, inhibition and focus. Whatever stimulus gives our brain a jolt of dopamine, inclines our attention to it. Focusing our attention is a process of selection. Before anything can be learned or accomplished, it has to be selected by the brain.

      When we are open to many distractions we tend to select based on curiosity and/or novelty, pleasure or the promise of something good. Given that not every task we do is pleasurable and when distracted we begin a cycle of selecting ie. priorizing unimportant tasks above those that are important. The dopamine flow released from the nuerons in the nucleus accumbens, which finds its way up to the prefrontal cortex and keeps us in the realm of experiencing pleasure and a misbegotten notion of accomplishment, while our primary tasks remain undone.

      Well, the release of dopamine and serotonin in the nucleus accumbens lies at the root of active drug addiction. The pattern of neural firing that results from this surge of neurotransmitters is the “high.” It is the chemical essence of what it means to be addicted. Without doubt multitasking evokes a similar addictive cycle.

    • Hi Mark,
      Well its all the researchers who have revealed the realities of multitasking and it’s effects. We have been fooling ourselves. According to Watson and Strayer, true multi-tasking is incredibly rare. The Supertaskers who can carry out multiple cognitive demands and experience no loss in efficiency make up a measly 2.5% of the population. The other 97.5% of us, sadly, cannot multi-task effectively, and likely will never be able to. Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability PDF file

  23. I totally agree. Its not actually multi tasking its allowing yourself to be distracted. For me the worst distractor is the Blackberry with its polite but penetrating bleep and red flashing light. For God’s sake nobody ignores a red flashing light, the consequences in the real world are dire. I can actually be on my computer and deal with an incoming email on the Blackberry because it arrives fractionally earlier than to my computer mail box.
    I have become crooked, red eyed, white faced hermit thanks to Gadget Rule and my productivity has dropped. I have to learn that because you can, it doesn’t mean you should.
    On the other hand a bit of a shift of habit is helpful but assigning time blocks would take me longer than actually doing the allocated tasks.

    • Yes, by choosing to multitask we open ourselves to increased distraction. Increased exposure to distraction leads to an increased inclination for the mind to wander rather than being single pointed ie. focused on the project at hand.

      Paper commnucation that rarely evoked urgency when it came to responses has given way to e-mails, text messaging and carrying cell phones lest we miss anything happening right now. Everything is being reduced to sound-bytes and we are all resembling those stricken with ADHD.

      As we become more and more addcted to being “switched-on” and available to all day and night, the price we pay is the loss of quality time when we are one of one with each other face-to-face. The irony is the reason we were multitasking was to gain this time.

      I have found that scheduling time blocks for the week’s work and making adjustments each night in preparation for the next day is workable for me. Yes, it does take time to schedule in the beginning. Once the schedule is in place focusing on a single task without being open to distraction does bear benefits. I spend less time being pulled away from the task to deal with whatever distractions I used to be open to and then having to settle into working on that task again. Also the quality of the work I produce is higher as there are fewer mistakes to correct.

  24. thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou….I know this is what I should do, it is in fact what I WANT to do, I hate that feeling of being mentally splintered – but how to deal with that nagging feeling I may let someone down if I haven’t got the email and FB and blog comment pages open all the time so I know the minute someone contacts me? This is the just the positive re-enforcement (and dose of research) I needed to allay the sheer prospect of guilt. Telling myself I’m flattering myself to imagine they would know or care if I responded instantly doesn’t quite work (I guess I like flattering myself too well!). Thank you Time thief!

    • I have been spread too thin for far too long and I recognize that now. I had assumed I was more productive and effective due to multi-tasking. Now I have begun to change my habits I recognize this simply isn’t true.

      • timethief, I first want to thank you for your willingness to assist a multitasking maniac who has finally discovered how to do a few basic things in blogging. I started knowing almost nothing, started 10 blogs in a short period of time and due to a serious lack of sleep, even the basics escaped me! Thank you for your patience with me!!! My main blog is ; I really don’t know yet but try[ thenountaineer.wordpress.com] It has Christian content so be forewarned that I believe in God and I hope that you do also.
        David

        • I’m happy that my answers to your questions have been helpful and I hope that you find my blog content to helpful too. If you more help you know where to find me. Happy blogging! :)

          P.S. I do not believe in God and have zero interest in Christian blog content.

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