Why can't I multi-task?
If you, like me, were brought up to believe that we can multi-task, I hate to break it to you but you’ve been fed a crock of doodah. Especially the people who took on this idea and try to do twice as much in half the time.
Why is multi-tasking a myth?
It’s impossible to do more than one thing well at a time. All that happens is that you end up spinning plates.
You know the old circus act? Someone would position a plate on top of a stick and spin it so it stayed on the stick, and they'd then set another up and another until there were several sticks of spinning plates, and the performer had to rush from one stick to another to keep the plates spinning. You just about manage to keep the plates spinning rather than completing one task.
You need to focus. It’s easy to think that some people are naturally better at focusing than others but this isn’t so. Focusing takes practice — it’s not something that you have but something you do.
You need to build up your focus muscle so that it becomes second nature to do one thing at a time. You need to concentrate on one thing rather than doing one task but thinking about the next thing that you have to do or what you’re having for dinner later.
Research reports that the human brain can’t do multiple parallel cognitive processes at once, and that’s the myth of multi-tasking.
When you’re mentally rushing around to keep the plates spinning, you can’t focus on the thing that you’re doing right now. You’re caught up thinking about all the items on your to-do list and you become overwhelmed by how much you have to do. But you aren’t doing all of them now, in this second, you’re only doing one of them, so focus on that.
Focusing on one task at a time has multiple benefits. You can get the task done in a much shorter time when you concentrate on it, which leaves you more time to move on to the next task. Also, you have a much clearer mind because you’re not clouding your head with all the items on your list and so will consequently do a better job on the task in front of you rather than being distracted.
Jim Kwik, a brain coach, says that focus begins in the morning when you first wake up and most people forget to focus when they reach for their phone. Kwik says, “When you wake up, you’re in this relaxed state of awareness — it’s the most relaxed you’ll feel the entire day,” he says.
“When you pick up your device, you’re rewiring your brain for two things — for distraction, and then something even worse, reaction.” This distraction then continues during the day.
Think about it, how many times do you check your phone? Or lose chunks of time on Facebook or Instagram? And then complain that you don’t have enough time during the day to get done what needs to get done?
Kwik says that people are building their distraction muscle (rather than their focus muscle) when they try to do many tasks at once. Rather than multi-tasking, they’re task switching, jumping around and getting nothing done properly. It’s better to set aside a specific time to sit and concentrate on the task you’re doing and then build in a break — this is called the 'Pomodoro method'.
What is the Pomodoro technique?
Pomodoro is a time management method that is used around the world. The idea was developed in the late 80s by Francesco Cirillo and uses a timer to break time into specific intervals — around 25 minutes — punctuated by short breaks. Cirillo used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer to use this technique when he was a university student, which is where the name comes from.
The idea is that you decide on a task to do and then set the timer. You work on the task until the timer rings and then you mark the time you spent on a piece of paper. You then take a short three to five-minute break and then set the timer and start again. When you have completed four rounds of this, you take a longer 15 to 30-minute break.
This sounds so obvious, doesn’t it? Anyone can do this, of course, but do you?
How can this help?
Giving yourself ‘permission’ to take short breaks (to make a drink, scroll on Facebook or jump up and down) helps to activate the reward system in our brain. Taking a longer break at the end of an hour or so helps you to get through your work and to enjoy a few more ‘fun’ things in your day.
This is not to make you work harder or smarter, but it gives you control over what you do.
If you employ this method, you might end up being more productive and you also might end up getting everything that you need to do finished and have more free time.
Why you can’t multi-task
You might have bought into the 'busy being busy' mentality but task switching is actually costing you time. Your brain has to adjust every time you switch tasks. It can take up to 15 minutes to reorient, and it can take up to 40% longer to finish what you’re doing compared to focusing on one task at a time.
Michael Jordan, the Basketball player, is thought to be the best player that has lived. But, it’s said that his gift wasn’t that he could jump high, run fast, shoot a basketball. His gift was that he was completely present. He focuses on what he is doing in this minute. And he does it well.
So, take a leap and turn your phone off while you concentrate. Switch off notifications so that you aren’t distracted by every email that comes in and don’t get tempted by social media. Focus is the enemy of multi-tasking and, just like everything else, the more you practice focusing on what you’re doing in this moment, the better you’ll get at it.