Originally posted on LinkedIn here.
Checking email, talking on the phone and hammering out a project all at the same time may feel good, but it is killing your creativity. Our brains just can’t handle it.
It goes back to the argument of being efficient vs. being effective and in my experience, I would much rather be effective. But why can’t you do both? It turns out, that we are not wired that way.
Don’t get me wrong, if you want to multitask the mundane, go ahead. Just do not expect to produce anything extraordinary. This may not matter in some of the work you do, but you have to be disciplined enough to not let the habit encroach on more meaningful work.
I am sure you are wondering why I would make such a claim. We live in a world where multitasking is the norm. We cannot go 5 minutes without checking our phone and the increasing demand makes it feel like it is the only way to keep up. The fact is, multitasking is not doing you any favors, and here is why.
We Don’t Actually Multitask
One study found that we do not actually multitask. The brain actually switches back and forth between tasks. Therefore, you are constantly having to refocus on a specific task every time the brain switches and keep both tasks organized. This never gives you the opportunity to really explore your work for ways to improve.
Reduced Cognitive Function
Another study found that as we multitask we do not devote our full cognitive ability to either task. This may be OK for some tasks but as the task gets more difficult, the brain simply cannot handle it. Ever wonder why you sit down and try to accomplish something but cannot seem to get it done, multitasking may be why. Anyway, how creative do you think you will be when you are only using a fraction of your cognitive ability?
Forces Automatic Processing
The brain is only capable of two types of processing – automatic and controlled processing. In automatic processing we are basically on autopilot and the tasks happens outside of our awareness. Sometimes this is OK for some tasks such as eating or walking, but it can produce negative results in tasks that should not happen automatically. This is often the reason why you do something and do not remember doing it.
Understanding this is extremely important for creativity. If we are forced into automatic processing we are not conscious of what we are doing and have no ability to question it. That means that there is no chance of creativity. That is why it is important to always throw in a kink every now. This will help force controlled processing and possibly lead to an alternative approach.
Shifting Takes Time
I briefly covered this earlier, but shifting between tasks takes time. This is time that you would not lose if you were working directly on a single task. Performing multiple tasks at once feels more productive but in most cases, it is not.
You’re Missing Out
Much of the work we do is social in nature. This could be writing an email, attending a meeting or having a conversation. These social interactions provide insight into many things that we may be missing if we are multitasking. We have all been there when someone asks us to answer a question and we were too busy multitasking that we did not even hear the question. Just imagine what else you’re missing. It may have just been that breakthrough information you needed for your next big idea.
If you have kids or a significant other, you understand just how easy it is to tune someone out. They often have to smack you and re-ask the same question for the 5th time. Sure we don’t mean to ignore them, it is multitasking’s fault. While people can’t usually smack you at work, there are still repercussions. Individuals may choose not to work with you or involve you in projects simply because of previous interactions. To be a good listener and participate in meaningful discussions, we have to put any other tasks on the backburner.
So what is the alternative?
The alternative is not to multitask. With that being said, I know that is not realistic. The real alternative is to understand multitasking is not a good thing and to make sure you are not multitasking on things where creativity is important. This will take practice and discipline but here are a few tips:
- Put away or silence your phone (Desk and Mobile)
- Close your email and chat programs
- Close all unneeded programs and websites
- Close your door if that is an option
- Use a timer and work until it goes off (I prefer 20-30 minutes)
- Meditate to practice focusing
- Practice being present and focused in other areas
- Have someone hold you accountable
These are just a few tips but they have helped me break my multitasking habit. Learning to focus on a single task is a great skill and will allow you to produce extraordinary results if you use it correctly. I encourage you to monitor your results and get feedback from others. People will notice your increased presence and creativity.