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Why Multitasking is Multi-taxing

Debunking the myths of multitasking and six ways to take back control.

When I met Angela, she looked and felt as if she was carrying the world on her shoulders, which was odd because, according to her, she really didn’t have much to complain about. She had a good job, she liked her boss, and her family life was copacetic. However, even with everything going so smoothly for Angela, she still felt exhausted, stressed out and on edge all the time. She was losing motivation to excel and even felt like she was slipping into depression.

“I don’t know why, but I never feel like I can relax,” she shared. “There’s always something I have to do. And as soon as I do it, five more things are added to my list. I feel like just giving up, and that’s not like me at all.”

Sound familiar? If you live in the Silicon Valley, Los Angeles or New York, like many of my clients do, you may recognize this as the widespread norm. As Angela and I talked, the sources of her baseline stress started to become clear. Her job required her to interact with China and India, which had her getting up in the middle of the night to answer emails — not because it was required of her, but because she knew it helped things move a little faster.

Additionally, Angela interfaced regularly with many different groups of people inside and outside her company. Every day she had roughly 50-100 emails that she needed to respond to. If she missed an email, she would likely hear about it — something she actively avoided. To deal with the constant barrage of issues, she multitasked all day long; she responded to emails while on conference calls, in the car, at the grocery store, even while when making dinner.

Rather than easing the pressure, all of the extra work Angela did just make the situation that much worse. Because she was so good at follow up, Angela developed an internal pressure to keep up the pace. She felt like is was expected of her, and saw no way out of it. By the time we were sharing a cup of coffee together, she was certifiably burnt out.

First defined in 1974, occupational burnout is the result of long-term, unresolved job stress. Emotionally, it can manifest as “quickness to anger,” emotional exhaustion, reacting to people rashly or cynically, reduced feelings of personal accomplishment, and closed thinking. Physical symptoms can include headaches, sleeplessness, and cognitive weariness.

Today in the U.S., 19 percent of men and 25 percent of women report being “stressed and burnt out” according to the American Psychological Association. However, because burnout syndrome still lacks a proper and concise definition, the numbers are likely much higher.

Burnout can result from a variety of unrelenting stressful activities, but the biggest culprit is the “always on” culture that electronics and smartphones afford us. They create the ability for us to be available at any time and create an expectation (either real or perceived) that we ought to respond sooner rather than later, either because others are depending on us, or simply to avoid the possibility of forgetting to do it later. And, with the introduction of push notifications, our electronics can now interrupt our workflow so frequently that we may spend more time trying to get back on track than actually being productive.

Gloria Mark and her colleagues at the University of California at Irvine found that, on average, the typical office worker is interrupted or switches tasks every three minutes. Given that it can take an average of 23 minutes to get back into the groove of their work flow, it’s no wonder people feel stressed.

Like Angela, the way many of us try to cope with these stresses is by multitasking — doing (or so we believe) more than one thing simultaneously. In reality, though, our brains can only focus on one thing at any given time. What we call multitasking is simply our brains “task switching” very quickly between the two activities. The additional mental effort required to focus and refocus when juggling multiple activities actually means that it takes about 50 percent more time to finish each task.

Beyond this, the irresistible habit of checking our electronics at all waking hours originates from the same brain mechanics as heroin addiction. Our seeking and finding hormones (dopamine and opioid respectively) served us well as hunter-gatherers, but in today’s electronic age research suggests that we get micro hits of these hormones each time we find an important email or see that someone liked our latest Instagram photo. That instant gratification fuels more checking and searching, and pretty soon we’re off the road of productivity and into the thicket of wasting time.

When the majority of work communication is handled via email and platforms like Slack and Skype, it’s easy to use these tools as a proxy for productivity, and lean on the myth of multitasking to help us get ahead of our mountains of obligations. The real key to stress reduction, as business consultant Betsy Jacobson points out, “…is not better time management, but better boundary management. Balance means making choices and enjoying those choices.” It’s up to all of us to take responsibility for our own time by setting clear boundaries and defending them when necessary for the good of our health as well as our productivity.

Here are six ways to get started down that path:

1. Switch notifications to the bare minimum

The fastest way to get a handle on your electronic life is to turn off the majority of your notifications. I recommend limiting them to items that people use for more urgent matters, such as text messages and phone calls.

2. Check email at specific times of the day

Research suggests that people who check email in batches throughout the day report higher levels of satisfaction around their day’s productivity. Set aside a specific time in your schedule every day to deal with email. Inform your colleagues of this, and instruct them to call you during those times if something is urgent (it’s remarkable how little is actually “urgent” when a phone call is required). Typically, these blocks of time can be one hour in the morning, and one hour in the afternoon. Address high priority items, and assign yourself tasks to handle the rest as needed. Then watch how the world doesn’t fall apart!

3. Turn off your email and use “Do not Disturb” features

That’s right, you heard me (or read me, actually). When you have a task to do that requires even a modicum of concentration and focus, turn off all things that could possibly interrupt you. If you work in an office, go the extra step of putting a sign on your door, or a little flag on your computer to indicate to your colleagues you are limiting the interruptions. You might even set aside time on your calendar for accomplishing specific tasks. Just be prepared to defend it when something else attempts to distract you.

4. Set a “Closing” time for your electronic obligations

For some lucky people simply leaving the office allows them to step away from any emails, phone calls, and text messages until the start of the next workday. We can take a page from their book, and set our own hours for when we are officially off work and when we can be expected to return. Share these hours with your family and colleagues, and you’ll be surprised how few people (if any) object.

5. Focus on one task at a time

While it’s tempting to answer emails while on conference calls, or in meetings. Don’t do it. The same brain functions we use for listening, we also use for writing, so anytime you think you’re multitasking with these activities, your brain is really just switching between the two tasks. Even if your colleagues don’t notice your attention drifting, even if you manage to retain what you hear on the call, the result will still be increased fatigue and a tendency toward lower quality work and less productivity than if you just focused on one thing at a time.

6. Practice Digital Sabbat

Take one 24 hour period a week and completely unplug. I’m serious. Turn off your cell phone, your computer, your iPad, your XBox, the TV, your Echo Dot — EVERYTHING. Much like the Jewish practice of Sabbat, this digital version sets aside unfragmented time for connection with our fellow humans, animals, nature and our own creativity. At first, it might seem like a struggle, but after a few weeks, you might find yourself looking forward to it.

Trying to be more productive by multitasking is like trying to improve your conditioning by running on two treadmills at once. You may be able to do it for a while, but the stress you’ll endure is not worth the diminished results. There’s no better time to break the habit, set boundaries, and take control of your digital life than right now. No multitasking required.

“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” — Stephen Covey

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