Context Switching - The Reason Multitasking Is A Bad Idea

A couple of weeks ago, when we were talking about ways you can become more creative, I mentioned slightly about Context Switching. Since then, many have asked me about it, and I decided to dedicate today’s topic on that.
Let me start by asking you this:
“Which are you better at? Single-tasking, or multi-tasking?”
Some of us may feel bad if our answer is the former. It gives the illusion we are unproductive, can’t juggle many functions at the same time, and maybe even suggest lower intelligence. As a matter of fact, we often see people who can multitask being praised or even promoted, and serial entrepreneurs and business leaders are hailed as heroes in their field for their ability to maximize their output.
That couldn’t be further from the truth, but before we get there, let’s first delve a bit deeper into multitasking.

Types of Multitasking

According to the research by the American Psychological Association, there are three types of multitasking:
  • Classic multitasking
    This is common, which is simply trying to perform more than one task at a time.
  • Rapid task switching
    The keyword here is "quick" and that involves jumping from one task rapidly onto another, sometimes back and forth.
  • Interrupted task switching
    This is the worst of the three, because it means you have stopped in your current task halfway and may not even come back after that. It's also the type where you need to "switch gears" as you shift your focus into something entirely different and often unrelated.

The Costs of Multitasking

One thing that multitaskers may not realize is that while they may “appear” productive, being able to manage several projects at the same time, it comes at a cost. According to Inc., when it comes to the loss of productivity due to multitasking, the estimated cost is $450 billion!
Why? Here are some stats:
  • We spend an average of just 1 minute and 15 seconds on a task before being interrupted.
  • It takes an average of 25 minutes to resume a job after being interrupted.
  • Each task switch might waste only 1/10th of a second, but if you do a lot of switching in a day it can add up to a loss of 40% of your productivity.
  • Heavily multitasking can temporarily lower your IQ by up to 15 points.
Yes, if you think single tasking means you’re not as smart, think again. On the contrary, scientifically proven, multitasking causes you to be lesser smart.
And it’s not just business losses, because when you multi task or experience constant context switches, you will also suffer from:
  • Increased mental fatigue, a result of our brains having to “switch” gears constantly
  • Lowered quality of work
  • Loss of focus, or harder to stay focused
  • Tasks left hanging and uncompleted, until the deadline looms and the pressure mounts
Perhaps the worst of all, is that task switching taxes your brain. According to Psychology Today:
"Task switching involves several parts of your brain: Brain scans during task switching show activity in four major areas: the pre-frontal cortex is involved in shifting and focusing your attention and selecting which task to do when. The posterior parietal lobe activates rules for each task you switch to, the anterior cingulate gyrus monitors errors, and the pre-motor cortex is preparing for you to move in some way.”
That may explain your fatigue levels too.

What Can You Do Now?

Yes, by now, you should have slightly more awareness on the toll of multitasking. Sadly, the world around us is constantly trying to shove us in that direction. Take a look at how many browser windows, applications and pieces of unrelated documents scattered on your table. As a matter of fact, if you’re reading this in the office, stand up and look at the tables and desktop screens of your colleagues and subordinates. Do you also notice the similarities?
However just as how you’ve come to know me, I am a problem solver and here I have a few tips that can help you battle this bad habit.
Tip 1: Batching
We’ve talked about this in a previous post, so let me just do a quick recap. Batching simply means grouping similar tasks together. For example, instead of checking your email the whole day, check only once every 2 to 4 hours. I’ve known some managers and entrepreneurs who will review the contents of their inbox at only 12pm and 4pm and they even leave the sender with a nice auto-reply saying that if it’s an emergency, they can be reached at their number. The best part, one of the managers, Julia, told me that she had implemented this for the past three years and the number of calls she got about an important email? None.
Tip 2: Time Limit
Setting a time limit for your task is also highly recommended. Referencing the example above, yes, you have decided only to check your emails twice a day. Now, try allowing yourself just 15 minutes and you will find that you can empty your inbox faster than you think. Responses will be clear and concise, messages that cause distractions can be chucked aside, essential tasks can be immediately prioritized and delegated. This 15-minute burst will help you focus, partly due to the illusion of the lack of time too.
Tip 3: Notifications On Hold
When you know you are about to start on an important task, put your phone and PC’s notification on silent. Our minds are easily distracted by blurbs and beeps. As a matter of fact, a good practice is to even switch off the internet or go on airplane mode, leaving onto your phone to be reachable in case of emergencies. Do this for a while and you may even start disabling most of the notifications on your phone. After all, do you really need to be reminded of another Lazada sale? :)

Tip 4: Manage the FOMO
FOMO - Fear Of Missing Out - is something you have to manage and is a habit easy to beat if you put your mind into it. FOMO is that lingering thought in the back of your mind or the feeling you have when you’re supposed to be focused on a task, especially one that is not favorable. “I wonder what my colleagues are doing now?”, “Did I miss anything important this week?” or “I’m sure they are having a good time without me” are some example of FOMO thoughts. Recognise some of them?
Tip 5: Task Categorization
Take a look at your work tasks and surely you can easily group them into two different boxes - high thinking vs. low thinking. High thinking tasks are when you need more focus, creativity, problem-solving etc, while low thinking jobs are usually those that are menial, more physical. Keep your most productive times for those high thinking tasks. For those low thinking tasks, you can afford to have a distraction or two. Because of muscle memory our body gets better at handling repeated, physical jobs. That is why sometimes when you were just sorting through the mail, you will suddenly have an “aaaha” moment. The “droning” of the low thinking tasks actually clears your mind.

So there you have it. I hope you are more aware of the harmful effects of multitasking and the benefits of its counterpart. Along with the tips I shared, you should see immediate benefits such as better time management, clearer focus, increased productivity and naturally a happier person too.