TL;DR: Multitasking is a myth. Switch-tasking is real and leads to sub-standard results and stress. Creativity suffers when our minds can’t get into the flow. Use time-management techniques that encourage focusing on a single task.
Last week, as I was putting the finishing touches on my weekly email, I was trying to create a link to a blog post and discovered my Sunday School of Sewing site had an issue. Although I know multitasking is a myth that creates errors and leads to poor outcomes, I still tried to proofread the email while also figuring out the problem on the site. Proofreading the email should have been a 5-minute task. Fixing the website should have been a 20 minute task. However, by switching back and forth, I spent an hour on these two projects. In addition, I didn’t catch the fact I had forgotten to add a photo to the email -- a photo the text specifically mentioned. What I should have done is put the email aside and focused on fixing the website issue. Once I did that, I could have grabbed the link I needed and proceeded to finalizing the email.
Switching is the key word in the anecdote above. Although we think we are multitasking, we are actually switch-tasking. Our brains focus on one thing at a time. When we try to focus on more than one thing at a time, we lose seconds or minutes of focus as we try to go back and forth between the activities. More importantly, we are more prone to errors and spend more time completing the tasks than it would take if we focused on one task at a time.
Dave Crenshaw wrote an excellent book, The Myth of Multitasking, and has a simple exercise on his website that quickly demonstrates the troubles with switch-tasking. I’ve used this exercise many times with students and the results are always the same: they completed the tasks more quickly and more accurately when focusing on one task at a time.
The false notion of multitasking has especially negative consequences when it comes to creativity. Most of us can think of a time when we were so focused on a task that time seemed to stop or go by so quickly we barely noticed. These are often some of the most fulfilling and happy times of our lives. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this a “state of flow.” In the Ted Talk video below, he discusses how being able to achieve a state of flow is crucial for happiness.
If we are trying to multitask, we can’t fully focus and, consequently, can’t achieve flow. Instead, we become anxious and stressed. Anxious about trying to get everything done. Stressed because our minds are frazzled at having to switch between so many tasks.
I’ve found the Pomodoro Technique effective for keeping me focused and avoiding multitasking. The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. Each interval is known as a pomodoro, from the Italian word for 'tomato', after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo used as a university student. I use an app on my phone instead of a kitchen timer, and it works well (as long as I stick with the task and hand and don’t veer off course as I did in my example in the first paragraph!). READ MORE ABOUT THE POMODORO TECHNIQUE
P.S. By using the Pomodoro Technique, I brainstormed, wrote, and posted this article in two 25-minute uninterrupted blocks with a 5 minute break in between.