Multitasking is the best way to do lots of subpar work

4 min read
Jerome Iveson
  •  Jul 27, 2016
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Distractions are everywhere—from social media to emails, YouTube videos to instant messaging, and even colleagues and clients. Designers get paid for their skill and time. But how much time can we actually give our work in a distraction-rich environment? How can we focus when so many things need our attention?

MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller found that “when people think they’re multitasking, they’re just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost.”

The production of cortisol, the stress hormone, also increases when there’s too much going on, which makes us feel exhausted—even early in the workday. 

“Multitasking is the equivalent of eating junk food and expecting to run a marathon.”

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Image by Peter Prato. From Inside Design: Yelp.

Creative professionals—an umbrella expression that encompasses careers as diverse as designers, UXers, developers, writers, and product managers—can’t afford constant cognitive disruption.

Breaking the multitasking myth

Most of us don’t stop one task when another more urgent item hits our phone or inbox. Instead, we attempt both. Multitasking forces us to switch between tasks instead of focusingTwitter Logo—or singletasking—through a workload, reducing concentration and increasing stress levels.

Our brains reward us for what feels like productivity until we’re smacked with the reality stick that reminds us there’s still more to get done before an item gets checked off the list.

We too readily accept these ideas and environmental constraints because modern working life demands we divide our attention into tweet-sized chunks.Twitter Logo Our brains release dopamine, rewarding us each time we cross off a small item on our to-do list. But when all those little boxes are checked off, what have you really achieved?

Email, social media, and instant messaging are neural addictions—mental candy we eat all too readily. We may not want to eat our greens, but we have more sustainable energy when we do, compared to after scarfing down a bag of junk food.

“When all those little boxes are checked off, what have you really achieved?”

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8 reasons why multitasking is bad for creative professionals

  1. Multitasking induces stress, putting the body and mind in a constant state of high alert, according to a University of California-Irvine study.
  2. You never get in the zone for anything because you’re wasting mental energy shifting gears between tasks. So you’re doing a poor job at everything instead of focusing on doing one thing well before moving onto the next task. (Source: Guy Winch, author of Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries.)
  3. Multitasking causes memory problems, especially as brains age.Twitter Logo A University of California San Francisco study found that as people get older, it takes longer to regain focus after switching tasks, disrupting short-term memory.
  4. Lunch can be a good time to catch up on email, but that means you’re going to ignore what you’re eating. A 2013 review of 24 studies found that when you work and eat at the same time, you fail to register what you’ve eaten and don’t realize when you’re full. That means many folks will keep eating or snack again later. Not good for your diet or fitness plan.
  5. People who multitask make more mistakes, causing up to 40% in lost productivity.Twitter Logo A study in 2010 found that the human brain can handle 2 complex tasks at once. Introducing a third causes an increase in mistakes.
  6. Multitasking slows you down, even when you’re doing seemingly automatic tasks like driving. According to a University of Utah study, drivers took longer on a simple journey when talking on the phone.
  7. A University of London study found that multitasking causes IQ drops comparable to sleep deprivation or smoking marijuana. Men can drop 15 IQ points when they multitask.Twitter Logo
  8. Crucially, for creative professionals—as if weight gain, short-term memory disruption, loss in productivity, and making more mistakes weren’t bad enough—multitasking reduces working memory, thereby making it harder to be creative.Twitter Logo A University of Illinois at Chicago 2010 study found that “multitaskers often find it harder to daydream and generate spontaneous ‘aha’ moments.”

“Multitasking causes IQ drops comparable to sleep deprivation.”

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Stop multitasking and get focused

There’s no easy, quick-fix answer, unfortunately—but there never is when you’re breaking free from bad habits. That’s how we should treat multitasking: as an unfortunate byproduct of an era when technology has made focusing on a single task more challenging than ever.

Focus and discipline are in short supply in distraction-rich physical and digital environments. Even the most disciplined creative professionals can use some help. Here are a few practical solutions for getting focused on one task when to-do lists, clients, and colleagues are making it difficult to concentrate.

  • Noise-canceling headphones. Don’t play the music so loud that it stops you from concentrating, since the brain can only concentrate on 1.6 conversations at a time. Work should take up the bulk of your concentration, but throw in music with lyrics and email, and suddenly you’re over capacity, according to Julian Treasure, TED speaker and author of Sound Business. Instead, try binaural beats in stereo headphones. Neurophysiologists have found that these can shift the brain into a much deeper state of relaxed concentration, taking creative professionals into the zone.
  • Meeting rooms create ideal isolation spaces. When necessary, book out a room—and block out digital distractions, too—just to spend a solid few hours working on a project that requires focused concentration.
  • Block out a “do not disturb” time on your schedule. Put a do not disturb status on chat or messenger apps, or log out of your inbox and remove it from your phone. Blocking off time in a group calendar or placing a sign on your desk or cubicle are also effective ways to gain the mental freedom you need to focus—especially if you work in an open office.
  • Give yourself mental, time-based boundaries, and start small. No email for an hour. Then 2 hours, then half a day. Reward yourself for prolonged periods of focus.Twitter Logo Grab a coffee at Starbucks, or considering its sudden popularity, you might want to reward yourself with 10 minutes of Pokémon Go. Both act as rewards while you’re also refreshing your mind for a new session of productivity.

Over time, singletasking will feel normal—even in a busy office filled with distractions.

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