Five hands of men in tuxedos holding Oscars Trophies

Three Multitasking Myths and What To Do Instead

The Oscar for the best picture goes to …

Wait, wait, wait.

Not them. No, no, not them. The other guys!

This year we watched in shock as the biggest blunder in 90 years of Academy Award presentations unfolded in front of 37 million stunned viewers. This mess was brought to us not by an egregious accounting error or a nefarious scandal, but by the ever-present practice of multitasking.

Brian Cullinan, a 30-year veteran of the prestigious firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, was posting on Twitter during the show while overseeing distribution of winning envelopes, and the poor man simply lost track. Instead of giving Warren Beatty the envelope for Best Picture (Moonlight), Mr. Cullinan give him the envelope for Best Actress (Emma Stone, La La Land).

The rest, as they say, is history.

But let’s not be so quick to judge this distracted accountant (I can’t believe I’m defending an accountant). We multitask many times a day and commit similar errors repeatedly. Just not in front of 37 million viewers.

I believe it’s time to reexamine this ubiquitous habit for what it is: a foolish pursuit of efficiency. In defense of that statement, I offer you three multitasking myths (and what to do instead):

  1. Multitasking exists.
  2. Multitasking is more efficient.
  3. Multitasking is what’s needed to get ahead.

Multitasking Myth 1: It Exists

This first multitasking myth, like Big Foot, the Abominable Snowman, and the Loch Ness Monster, is that multitasking actually exists.

It does not.

It’s not possible for the human brain to do two things at the same time. What we call multitasking is not multitasking at all but context shifting with a side of neurological tomfoolery.

“On a neurological basis, the human brain does not really process multiple tasks at once; instead, it toggles back and forth, losing time on every switch,” journalist Laura Vanderkam reports in 168 Hours. “Though we’re only talking factions of a second, this is, of course, plenty of time to crash your car if you’re trying to drive and send a text message.”

Distinguished MIT professor Sherry Turkle concurs in Reclaiming Conversation, “When we think we are multitasking, our brains are actually moving from one thing to the next, and our performance degrades for each new task we add to the mix. Multitasking gives us a neurological high so we think we are doing better and better, when actually we are doing worse and worse.”

Now context shifting is okay if the tasks we’re doing are unimportant, like folding laundry and watching TV. We can always rewind a show and watch what we missed. But when we’re in a team meeting and texting—or handing out winning Oscar envelopes and posting on Twitter—something’s going to go wrong.

Multitasking Myth 2: It’s More Efficient

Okay, I get it, what’s the point of presenting any more myths if multitasking doesn’t exist. The argument should end there, right?

I’ve announced Multitasking Myth One to more than a few executives, who refuse to believe me. So I try a less existential train of thought and offer real, hard data from twenty years of research by Jonathan Spira.

“For every interruption,” Spira reports in his brilliant book Overload, “it takes ten to twenty times the amount of the interruption time to return to the previous task. It can take five minutes after a mere thirty-second interruption to get back on track. Fully one-third of every worker’s day is taken up by the endless cycles of unnecessary interruptions.”

Heads nod knowingly when I travel down this path, every executive I’ve worked with has had more than one day ruined in this way. But upon further review, we discover the overwhelming majority of unnecessary interruptions on those days were self-generated by, you guessed it, a futile attempt at multitasking.

Are you an unbeliever yet? Here’s one more myth.

Multitasking Myth 3: It’s Needed to Get Ahead

The pressure to conform in this area of life and leadership is intense. Everyone checks their email in meetings, everyone reads their cell phone in line, and everyone (gasp!) texts while they’re driving. You should too, right? If, that is, you want to look good and get ahead.

Enter Multitasking Myth Three.

Forget for a moment that multitasking is not multitasking at all but context shifting. Forget for a moment that it’s not, in fact, more efficient but much, much less efficient. Forgotten? Now consider this subject from a pure marketing perspective.

In marketing—a product or a person—what causes either to break out of the pack and get noticed by the masses? Being exactly the same as everyone else or being different? You’re right, being different. Not just a little different, but a lot different. Refusing to multitask can be that difference for you, a good different that makes a bold statement about your brand as a leader.

But there’s another more powerful reason to reject multitasking: not just being different, but being present. Context shifting between two generic tasks is one thing, but when we do it with another human being, an employee, a colleague, or a spouse, we contribute to the deterioration of that relationship. We make a not-so-subtle statement that the person in front of us is less important than whatever we turn our attention to.

And I submit to you that it’s meaningful relational connection, much more than appearance, that’s the real key to getting ahead in this world.

A Day Without Multitasking

So what do you do instead? I offer this alternative: a day without multitasking.

First, a day without multitasking turns off every reminder and notification, every bell or buzz on every device you own. We’ve thoughtlessly allowed these technological tricks to hijack our attention every few minutes and destroy our concentration.

So turn them all off. Now! These tools should be your servant, not your master. You’ll still get to check your email—or whatever—in a day without multitasking, but you’ll do it on your own terms.

Second, a day without multitasking asks this critical question, “What are the most important things I can do today to fulfill my highest priorities?”

Ask this question before you read your email, before you check your smartphone, before you watch the news, and before you look at FaceBook, YouTube, LinkedIn, or Twitter. Now let your answer set the agenda for the day, not the aforementioned list.

This question asks you to think about your highest priorities, both personally and professionally. Time is too precious to waste on anything less. And this question asks you to think about what the most important things are that you can reasonably accomplish in the next nine hours to fulfill your highest priorities.

In other words, identifying your highest priorities isn’t enough, for within that broad boundary hundreds of demands still vie for your time. So choose the very best ones to do in this day, the big rocks you’ll put in your bucket before the sand pours in.

The Courage to Impose …

“Concentration—that is, the courage to impose what really matters most and comes first—is the executive’s only hope of mastering time and events instead of being their whipping boy,” writes Peter Drucker in The Effective Executive.

If that was true in 1967 when Drucker first penned these words, it’s even more true in 2017. This is exactly what a day without multitasking does. It imposes what really matters most and comes first to your day. Courageously.

The answer to the question, “What are the most important things I can do today to fulfill my highest priorities?” will yield a handful of tasks you can reasonably accomplish. Pull out your calendar and schedule them for a specific time in the day, like you would a doctor’s appointment. Then work on them at that time in a focused, concentrated manner without interruption (You turned all your notifications off, right? If not, do it now.).

You’ll be shocked at both the quality and quantity of work you’ll get done when you operate this way, instead of being derailed by a distraction every couple of minutes.

In-between these scheduled work sessions, leave room for other tasks: things that still need to get done but aren’t your highest priorities. When a break comes, pull out your smartphone, set a timer for 30 minutes, and make a game out of getting as much of these things completed as possible in that 30 minute window.

These two practices, known as time blocking and batching, are the most powerful tools you can use in completing a day without multitasking. Time blocking sets protected, uninterrupted work sessions to focus on your highest priorities (your big rocks), and batching forces you to complete lesser priorities that still need to get done in a crisp and efficient manner (your sand).

Use these two techniques interchangeably to become the most productive person you can be. Consider, now, doing this every day and banish multitasking from your life forever.

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