The pace of the modern world appears to increase with every minute that whizzes past: days slam into weeks, weeks collide with months and all of a sudden, you’re desperately savouring every remaining second minute of the final weekend of the year by trying to squeeze as much as possible into your much-needed break.
Productivity in the workplace is a similar beast – as work becomes increasingly hectic and demanding, you find yourself downloading as many apps and online resources as your data will allow, all in the name of making every moment count. The thing is though, as much as we might admire it, the enduringly envied trait of successful multitasking – perhaps the perceived true end game in adulting – is actually a neural impossibility. Yes, dear desperate, frantic list-makers and task-tickers: multitasking isn’t a ‘thing’, as far as the brain is concerned.
Award-winning American cognitive psychologist Daniel J. Levitin has literally written the book on how our neural inability to multitask is being ignored in modern society. In the ‘age of information overload’, Daniel argues that there just isn’t enough space in the brain to accurately prioritise tasks.
“Our brains do have the ability to process the information we take in, but at a cost,” he writes in his book, The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. “We can have trouble separating the trivial from the important and the processing makes us tired.”
As such, the concept that we understand to be ‘multitasking’ isn’t multitasking at all. “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly,” explains Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT and expert on divided attention. “And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”
The antidote? It may be obvious, but in order to achieve longer-term goals instead of crashing and burning, it’s important to stay on task: just one of them. In short, the only cure for multitasking, is uni-tasking. And while juggling several tasks may achieve more in the short term, it’s the long-term “neural fatigue” you’re trying to combat.
If you want to put this new game plan into practice, it’s imperative that you make a “deliberate” decision to uni-task. Consciously and carefully gifting yourself time to get your hands properly dirty with a task is the first step. Blocking out 20 minutes in your calendar to clear emails or 40 minutes to write the bones of a report is imperative, because you are allowing yourself the time to complete a very specific task.
Has ‘but I don’t have 40 minutes to spare!’ already surfaced as internal dialogue? Before you convince yourself that attempting to do everything all at once is the only way you’ll possibly tick off your mountain of to-dos, consider this: the key is to make sure you’re prioritising your tasks well in order to tackle what is most important (yes, one at a time). According to Trevor Holland, national training manager at lululemon Athletica Australia and New Zealand, “We’ll never get any more time, but you can prioritise differently, you can look at different time frames.”
It’s important that the company you work for supports your need to focus in on one task, especially when it comes to working productively over a longer period of time to achieve goals. Lululemon supports the long-term goal-setting of employees even on the personal level, by encouraging staff to not use ‘lack of time’ as an obstacle to achieving goals. “Sometimes it’s a bit difficult to dig in, because someone truly believes that a constraint is real,” says Trevor.
By taking away the not-enough-time mental block and becoming a boss at identifying what tasks need to be done first (then sticking to just that for a set period), you can make uni-tasking your new best friend.
Taking prioritising to the next level, why not block out an entire day to focus solely on one task that you’re burning to tick off? Moving service site Moveline has made it company policy that Tuesday is ‘Maker Day’, where all staff members are expected to work deeply on one task for one full day, with no interruptions. Or, consider a ‘meeting ban’ one day a week – team tracking app Asana hosts company-wide ‘No Meeting Wednesdays’ in order to combat the disruptive nature of long, often unnecessary meetings that would ordinarily interrupt the day.
It’s time that you (and your workplace) defriend the myth of multitasking. Further, it’s time to stop holding the ability to ‘achieve’ multiple tasks at once in high esteem. Because even if you do manage to appear as though you’re multitasking, you’re never working at the fullest capacity possible.
“Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get from a friend, is competing for resources in your brain with important things,” says Daniel.
As the old adage implores: just take it one step at a time.
This article is brought to you by Collective Hub x lululemon as part of our “From Practice to Purpose” series.