Become More Productive By Paying Attention To Less

The term "multitasking" first found its way into our language in 1965 when the famous multinational technology company, International Business Machines Corporation (IBM), used it in a report referring to the abilities of their latest computer at the time.¹ ²

Since then, it's a quality that isn't just praised in technology but in humans as well. This is especially so when it comes to the workplace. It often ends up as a listed desired quality of applicants in job descriptions. Plus, there is no shortage of articles online from career advisors about how to showcase your multitasking abilities on your resume.

It’s clear that multitaskers are usually seen as the most productive or efficient — and are frequently the envy of “single-taskers.” Who wouldn't want to be able to attend meetings, answer emails, and scan documents all at the same time?

However, research has consistently shown that this pervasively held belief that multitasking makes us productive is actually a myth. Working on too many things at the same time has been demonstrated to cause our quality of work to suffer.

To be more productive, we should focus on less.

What exactly is multitasking?

According to the American Psychological Association, multitasking is when a person attempts to do two tasks at the same time, switch between tasks, or perform multiple tasks one after another in quick succession.³

This definition in itself suggests how we as humans have been overestimating our abilities. We often think that when we multitask, we're doing things at the same time — we're not.

As Earl Miller, Picower Professor of Neuroscience at MIT, explains in an interview with NP: "Switching from task to task, you think you're actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you're actually not. You're not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously but switching between them very rapidly."⁴

Our innate ineptness at doing different things at the same time was discovered by experts after decades of "task-switching" experiments using activities such as card sorting or solving math problems.

Why multitasking is actually reducing our productivity

Since the 90s, experts have found that even when we switch predictably between simple cognitive tasks (like classifying odd or even numbers and identifying consonants and vowels), we still perform slower than compared to repetitions of the same task. More surprisingly, having extra preparation time between task sets does not improve performance either.³ ⁵

It also doesn't seem to make a difference if one of the tasks is more habitual or familiar. In a 1999 study, the researchers got participants to name digits in their first or second language depending on the background color. As expected, participants named digits slower in their second language after switching from their first language. But paradoxically, they were also slower when switching back to their first language after a second-language set.⁶

If we look at more real-world studies, it seems to reflect what’s been found in the labs so far. A 2003 study conducted by researchers from Loughborough University reported that it takes a person an average of 64 seconds to get back to a previous task after checking emails. They also discovered that most people check their emails once every 5 minutes. This works out to mean that 1 out of every 6 of our minutes is wasted.⁷

If we take it a step further, distracted driving is an even more serious example of how multitasking can not only impair performance — but even take lives. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), distracted driving caused around 424,000 car crash injuries and 3,100+ deaths in the US in 2019.⁸

Why the brain is not wired to multitask

After much investigation into why the brain has so much trouble with multitasking, experts discovered that there are multiple mental processes that the brain must go through when performing various tasks in close succession.

These are classified as "executive function" cognitive processes because they're actually advanced skills requiring more effort, including memory and planning.

When we multitask, the brain goes through two main executive function processes. The "goal shifting" part is involved in deciding to move from one activity to another. The "rule activation" part relates to switching off the rules from the previous task and turning on the rules for the next one.

This mental switching may not seem very cognitively taxing or time-consuming when you consider that it only takes less than a second for these processes to take place. However, when people switch back and forth between multiple tasks frequently, it all adds up. Some estimate that as much as 40% of our productive time can be taken up by the mental blocks that task switching creates.³

When scientists look at the neurological processes underpinning multitasking, our shortcomings in this area become even more apparent.

In one experiment conducted by experts at the Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (INSERM) in Paris, participants completed two tasks while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scan. The tasks were relatively taxing letter-matching activities.

At the beginning of the experiment, neuroimaging showed both sides of the participants' brains working together to accomplish the activity (when there was only one task). But when another task was added to the mix, neuroimaging started to show the two brain hemispheres working independently of each other. Their performance on the tasks also dropped even further when a third task was added.⁹ ¹⁰ ¹¹

Multitasking isn't just unproductive, it's also making us dumber

Experts have not only discovered that multitasking isn’t a forte of the human brain. New evidence shows that it can erode our cognitive abilities in the long term.

An early study in 2005 by the Institute of Psychiatry conducted with over 1,000 participants found that distractions like emails can cause a temporary decrease in IQ by 10 points.¹² ¹³

What's even more worrying is that more recent studies suggest that the effects could actually be more permanent than we expected. Researchers from the University of Sussex found that people who tend to use multiple media devices at the same time tend to have decreased gray-matter density in a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex.¹⁴ ¹⁵

This supports the evidence from other studies demonstrating that heavy media multitasking can lead to multiple cognitive impairments — including poorer memory outcomes and increased distractibility.¹⁶ ¹⁷ ¹⁸

Focus on less to do more

With multitasking receiving so much criticism from the scientific community, more and more people have become proponents of single-tasking. As the name suggests, it means doing one thing at a time with minimal or no distractions.

The issue with this is that staying focused on just one task can be challenging in a world with so many daily interruptions. According to a 2010 study by Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, we spend about 47% of our waking hours thinking about other things apart from the activity right in front of us. Furthermore, this frequent mind-wandering was causing participants a lot of unhappiness.¹⁹

Another study that looked at the effects of distraction on the performance of simple tasks (entering a code on a computer) found that even a 2.8-second interruption can double the average number of errors compared to interruption-free conditions. Furthermore, longer distractions (4.4 seconds) caused a quadrupling of the error rate.²⁰ Just imagine the effects of message notifications and phone calls on highly complex work tasks.

For most of us who habitually attend to every technological distraction that comes our way, mental retraining is needed to reverse these behavior patterns — and this is where attention management comes in.

Manage your attention to increase single-tasking

According to the award-winning corporate productivity trainer Maura Thomas, managing our attention (and not just our time) is the key to true productivity.²¹ ²²

Traditional time-management practices will usually include making a to-do list in order of urgency. But as most of us have experienced, once we get seated at the desk and open our emails, the list quickly goes out the door.

This is where Thomas has suggested in an interview with Real Simple that people also need to develop skills in managing their attention rather than time (which we technically don't have control of).

To do so, she suggests firstly getting familiar with the four general "brain states" that people move between throughout the day:

  1. Reactive and distracted: In this mental state, you're getting easily distracted by environmental interrupters and are constantly responding to each one that pops up. You might be trying to focus on something, but the repeated reactivity to each attention-grabber might lead you to flit from one activity to the next. This state is the least helpful for productivity.

  2. Focused and mindful: In this state, you're actively taking steps to concentrate on the task at hand. You try to push out all other mental and physical distractors to complete what you've set out to do. This is the most helpful mental state to be in for optimal productivity.

  3. Daydreaming and mind wandering: While daydreaming, you're letting your mind's attention go where it chooses. But you might still be actively blocking out distractions like checking your email or phone. Such periods are often when creative solutions or ideas surface spontaneously. It can be seen as a productive period, but it should also be balanced out with active periods of "doing."

  4. Flow: This is a highly focused state of mental engagement in what one is doing. When we're so completely absorbed in the task at hand, all sense of time starts to fade. Unfortunately, we cannot intentionally get ourselves into a flow state. But when you habitually engage in the "focused and mindful" brain state, you might find yourself in a flow state.

Practical steps to manage your attention

Of the four brain states outlined by Thomas, the "focused and mindful" state is the ideal one for productivity. Fortunately, there are practical steps that we can take to steer our minds into this state.

Here are her recommendations:

Take control of your environment

Remove as many distractions from your work area to reduce your inclination to start doing something else. This could be something like wearing noise-canceling headphones to block out noise. But it's also just as important to block out social interruptions. Let your co-workers know that if you have a "do not disturb" sign on your desk, it means that you need to work without interruptions unless it's an emergency. It's important to be explicit about this so that everyone in your work area understands your need to be left alone during this period — do not assume people will "get it" by reading your body language.

Take control of your technology

It’s time to be judicious with what devices receive your attention instead of carelessly attending to every notification. Thomas suggests hiding your phone and turning off other notifications during your focus period.

Break tasks down into smaller milestones

Dedicate all your attention to completing your task to the predetermined milestone. Or, you could set a timer and complete as much as you can till the end. 

Build up your ability to focus

As you continue to practice having shorter moments of complete focus, single-tasking will start to become second nature. You can also start to increase your concentration-time frame as you become better at tuning out distractions.

It's time for society to rethink the efficiency of multitasking and realize that our human brain is not wired for it. Personal and public workspaces should be set up to promote more single-tasking rather than expecting people to constantly divide attention among different tasks.

At an individual level, we also need to realize that we can control our attention and don't need to be at the mercy of every distraction that comes our way. Our precious attention should be directed to fewer, more important things to maximize productivity.

  1. The millennial workforce: How multitasking is changing our brains | Forbes

  2. Form: C28-6535-0 File Number: OS360 Concepts and facilities (1965)

  3. Multitasking: Switching costs | American Psychological Association

  4. Think you're multitasking? Think again | NPR

  5. Costs of a predictible switch between simple cognitive tasks. (1995)

  6. Bilingual language switching in naming: Asymmetrical costs of language selection (1999)

  7. Reducing the effect of email interuption on employees (2015)

  8. Distracted driving | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  9. Multitasking splits the brain | Science

  10. To multitask or not to multitask | The University of Southern California

  11. Divided representation of concurrent goals in the human frontal lobes. | Europe PMC

  12. The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world (2018)

  13. Emails 'pose threat to IQ' (2005)

  14. Brain scans reveal ‘grey matter’ differences in media multitaskers | University of Sussex

  15. Higher media multi-tasking activity is associated with smaller gray-matter density in the anterior cingulate cortex | University of Sussex

  16. A decade of data reveals that heavy multitaskers have reduced memory, Stanford psychologist says | Stanford

  17. Electronic media use, reading, and academic distractibility in college youth (2007)

  18. Tech-multitasking impacts your memory | The Mindset Clinic

  19. Wandering mind not a happy mind | The Harvard Gazette

  20. Brief interruptions spawn errors | Michigan State University

  21. Forget time management—Attention management is the better path to productivity | Real Simple

  22. Time management training doesn’t work | Harvard Business Review

Dawn Teh is a health writer and former psychologist who enjoys exploring topics about the mind, body, and understanding what helps humans thrive.

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