Why Multitasking Doesn’t Work – and What to Do Instead
With so many demands on our attention these days, it’s extremely easy to slip into multitasking – or rather, trying to multitask. That may be especially true this time of year when people are trying to take on new goals and activities.
And one of the primary times many people try to multitask is while eating.
It’s rather amazing how much people do while eating: work, answer email, surf the internet, talk on the phone, watch TV, drive, read, and more.
But the problem is, multitasking is a myth. The human brain simply isn’t wired to do multiple things at once, at least not if they require concentration.
Now, you may think that you’re an exception, but you’re not. If you’re honest about times when you’ve tried to do multiple things at the same time, things that require some focus, you’ll realize that you’re simply switching rapidly between two things. Or, you’re doing one thing – such as eating – on autopilot, and only focusing on the other activity. You’re certainly not giving both your equal attention.
The result? You end up doing multiple things poorly, and you feel more stressed. And in the case of eating, you’re much more likely to overeat. This might be because you don’t notice when you’re full, or it could be because you eat more to compensate for the food you didn't taste while you were busy.
As this article from RescueTime notes, this constant switching also takes a toll on your short-term memory and makes it harder for you to settle and focus on a single task. Plus, it takes time to shift your thoughts, and that lag impacts how quickly you can start working on something new and give it your full attention.
The good news is, you don’t have to follow along with the myth of multitasking. Here are five steps to take instead.
1: Accept that doing multiple things slows you down
The first thing to do is an experiment that will help you accept that you can’t truly multitask. (This was inspired by a similar example found in the RescueTime article – you can try that one as well.)
Get a piece of paper and fold it in half. On one half, draw a line down the middle. Time yourself, and in one column, write: “I am trying an experiment.” See how long it took – probably 10-15 seconds.
Then open a book or a recent email, and in the second column, write the first five words you see, also while timing yourself. Again, this shouldn’t take long, so you can see that both activities are pretty quick.
Now flip the paper over, and this time alternate writing between the two columns. So if your five words from the book were, “She went to the movies,” you’d write:
“I” in the first column
“She” in the second column
“am” in the first column
And so on until both sentences are finished. Even without timing, you can probably tell that the second attempt took a little longer because of the constant switching. It may not take a lot longer, but then, this is a simple experiment.
Hopefully, this helps clarify that it’s extra work to go back and forth instead of focusing on one task at a time.
2: Turn off non-essential notifications
Smartphones are one of the biggest culprits in distracting people and disrupting concentration, for a couple of reasons. One is that they’re super convenient at giving you access to doing just about anything electronic. But the other is all the notifications.
Now, sometimes the notifications you get are important, but odds are, most of the time they’re not.
If you get notified of everything on your phone (emails, calls, texts, social media posts, news alerts, etc.), it’s worth looking at those to see what’s truly essential.
You may also want to put your phone on “do not disturb” if you’re working on something and truly need to focus. After all, even taking the time to glance at a notification and decide that it doesn’t need your attention can be enough to break your train of thought and make it harder to get back into what you were working on.
3: Eat mindfully – at least some of the time
If you find that you often or always do something else while eating, start trying to shift that habit.
This doesn’t mean that you should immediately stop all distractions while eating, all the time. But you could start by eating without distraction for a few minutes at the start of one meal, and see how that goes.
Also, remember that eating mindfully means not being too distracted by your thoughts. Keep your focus on the food – how it smells, what it looks like, how it tastes, what textures it has – and how hungry or full you’re feeling. If you do that, you’ll realize just how much you miss when you put eating on the back burner and focus on something else.
4: Remember that busy doesn’t mean more productive
One of the reasons many of us – including me – want to believe in multitasking is that we like to feel productive. And being productive can be good, but it’s not the same as being busy.
A typical workday reminds me of this all too well. Since I work part-time, I work five hours a day, but anywhere from 2 to 4 hours of that might be spent in meetings. Then there are emails and chat messages to answer, plus getting something to drink, having a snack, and trying to convince the cats that it’s not the time to play.
As a result, my day may be busy, but I don’t often have time to sit down and be productive.
So just remember, being busy isn’t the goal. Try to organize your time so you can be productive instead.
5: Take breaks
When you’ve been deeply focused on something, it’s important to take breaks. This gives your mind some time to absorb and reflect on what you’ve been doing and to shift toward what you’re doing next.
This is also a great time to move around a bit, especially if you’ve been doing a lot of sitting. Some physical movement will be good for both body and brain.
And remember, taking short breaks doesn’t make you lazy or less productive. You’re likely to be more productive if you give yourself some downtime.
Trying to multitask isn’t the answer
If you feel like you’ve got too much going on and think you need to try multitasking to get everything done, it’s not going to work out the way you’d hoped. You’ll end up feeling more anxious and stressed than you did beforehand, and it will take longer to get everything done (at least if you want to do things well).
Instead, remind yourself that you’ll do better if you accept that multitasking isn’t the answer. Remove what distractions you can, organize your time so you can focus on what you need to do, take breaks, and when you eat, eat mindfully. You may be amazed at how much you accomplish, and how much better you feel.