Multi-tasking is doomed to fail
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Holding the phone to my ear with my shoulder, I chat to my sister while trying to bake a cake with my daughter - breaking off occasionally to check the emails that ping incessantly on the computer and to hiss at my nine-year-old son to get on with his homework.
After the call has ended I realise I can only remember about 20 percent of our conversation and I totally forgot to mention the one thing I needed to discuss with my sister.
Meanwhile, I have measured out the cake ingredients incorrectly and am left with two slightly burned, flat discs and a disappointed daughter, and my son’s homework has ground to a halt. The emails I felt compelled to check are almost all spam. The only things I have achieved by this frenetic multi-tasking are failure and frustration.
When I finally sit down with my son, who only needed a few moments for me to explain something, he sails through the rest of the homework. I rush the children through bathtime and bedtime then stagger downstairs at 8pm, aware I’ve still got to cook for myself and my husband as well as fit in an hour’s work, and wondering - for the umpteenth time - where I am going wrong.
I’ve always thought multi-tasking was the only way to get everything done. After all, everyone does it, from working parents to stay-at-home mothers and busy executives. We talk on the phone as we do the supermarket shopping, we shop online while we cook supper, we check our emails in meetings or at dinner or even at our children’s carol concert.
One friend uses a hands-free headset at home so she can talk on the phone while doing her chores without getting a crick in her neck.
But does all this frenetic multi-tasking and constant communication really make us more efficient? According to a new book by business consultant and life coach Peter Bregman, the answer is no. On the contrary, it makes us more stressed, less competent, and less productive.
One study reveals that people distracted by emails and phone calls while working see a ten-point fall in their IQ. That is the same effect as losing a night’s sleep, and more than twice the IQ-drop experienced by marijuana smokers.
Doing several things at once might make us think we are getting more done but in reality our productivity goes down by as much as 40 percent. Our brains and bodies are simply not able to multi-task, so we switch between tasks, constantly interrupting ourselves and losing concentration and time. Worse still, according to research, the more you multi-task, the worse you are at it - heavy multi-taskers are less competent than light multi-taskers.
So Bregman decided to see what would happen if he stopped trying to multi-task for a week. He found that not only did it make for a less stressful life, but he was far more productive - and more patient and happy.
Rather than trying to do lots of things at once, he allowed himself less time for each task but committed himself fully to the task in hand. Intrigued, I decided to give his experiment a go to see if I could get through a week without multi-tasking and what the effects would be.
My first step was to turn off my smartphone in the car. Even the ringing or a bleep of an email while I’m driving distracts me because I wonder who is trying to reach me and why.
Immediately, car journeys became safer and more companionable, and I listened properly to my children as they chatted going to and from school.
Working from home, I often allow myself a “water-cooler moment”, breaking off to peruse online clothes shops. But these moments frequently turn into avaricious half-hours as I eye up endless pairs of sandals.
Under my new, mono-tasking regime, I refrained from online window-shopping and turned off the sound on my computer so the ping of emails wouldn’t distract me.
To my surprise, a project that would normally have taken me more than a day was done by 3pm, so when the children came back from school I could give them all my attention.
The evenings are usually a testing time - a two-hour frenzy of cooking tea, feeding the dog, putting the goose to bed, supervising homework and bath time and reading bedtime stories, while fielding phone calls and emails. I often find myself agreeing to things I wouldn’t if I wasn’t so distracted (“Yes, why not get the paints out in the sitting room!” and “Of course, darling, it’s fine for you to go away on another boys’ weekend.”)
Taking Bregman’s advice, I turned off the computer - no more emails pinging, no demands from my children to watch something “really funny on YouTube” - and sat down next to my son while he did his homework.
Just by sitting there I kept him “on task”. Rather than jumping up and down to fetch another pencil or drink, or lapsing into a daydream, he focused on his homework and got it done in record time. This experiment was good for us both.
Then, instead of doing the online supermarket shop while the children ate their tea, I sat down and chatted with them. As a result, we had wide-ranging conversations about what they wanted to do at the weekend, who collected the tooth fairy’s teeth and how fighter pilots went to the loo. True, I was slightly uneasy that I had not done the shopping, but it felt good to have spent time talking to my children properly.
By the time I went downstairs after kissing them goodnight, I felt calmer than normal and much less crabby.
I then spent half-an-hour catching up with a friend on the phone while sitting in an armchair rather than scampering round the house like a gerbil with OCD, tidying things away, hanging up washing and filling out forms for school.
At the end of each phone call I realised the truth of another piece of Bregman’s advice - only when you focus 100 percent on a conversation do you pick up the nuances and really understand what someone is saying... or not saying.
The rest of the week I made a conscious effort to focus on the present and take things one task at a time, rather than trying to think ahead. Instead of constantly breaking off from work every few minutes to put on a wash, make the beds, tidy up the sitting room or make soup for lunch, I decided to leave it all until later.
When my husband came over from his office for a mid-morning break, my concentration was so intense he had to ask me three times if I wanted tea.
But as the week went by I was conscious of things piling up. The supermarket shop was still not done, so we ran out of bread and milk. Then I discovered belatedly that my daughter had a school trip the next morning for which she required wellies and a packed lunch. We had no bread and I last saw her wellies at Easter.
A quick ring around my neighbours produced both but I cursed Bregman at that moment. All very well for him to preach one task at a time, I thought, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he had a wife multi-tasking like a maniac to keep the show on the road.
My work ethic is so deep-rooted that I find it hard to shake off a sense of guilt when I watch TV with my husband without simultaneously sewing or ironing.
But the new regime meant we got to cuddle up on the sofa without him being spiked by needles, and he didn’t have to keep explaining the plot, because for once I was concentrating.
By the end of the week, I felt considerably less stressed. I had been worried that without multi-tasking I would not get enough done but in fact I did several things I normally never find the time to do.
Not only did I meet my work deadlines, but I also baked a successful cake with my daughter and played soldiers with my son.
Both activities made them - and me - very happy. I have also appreciated the countryside as I drive or walk through it, rather than passing it unseeingly as to-do lists whirr like fruit machines in my brain.
On the minus side, while the house hasn’t quite descended into Tracey Emin-style squalor, it is messy enough to give Anthea Turner a hernia, and there is a leaning tower of laundry on the spare bed.
I also missed one urgent work email while the computer was off.
Call me a cynic but I can’t help wondering if Bregman can only afford not to multi-task because, like many men, he is blissfully blind to the stuff like admin, laundry and tidying that just doesn’t get done unless you snatch spare minutes to do it.
However, I am sure he is right that trying to do too much at once is futile. You end up doing everything badly and feeling exhausted.
The sense of achievement I got from multi-tasking was totally misplaced - far from being Superwoman, I was turning into a mad woman.
Although it may be unrealistic to give up my whirling-dervish ways altogether, I have resolved to try to give each task, and person, my full attention. It certainly makes for a healthier mind and happier household.
All I need now is a housekeeper. - Daily Mail
* 18 minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, And Get The Right Things Done, by Peter Bregman, £9.99, Orion.