Achieving Excellence: The Art of Monotasking

August 2nd, 2013 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on Achieving Excellence: The Art of Monotasking

multitaskingThere’s a good chance that as you begin reading this article, you are also engaged in a few other tasks. Perhaps doing a little pricing or signing off on a time-off request form. We typically call this level of engagement, multitasking. And most of us take great pride in what we think is our ability to perform multiple tasks simultaneously. And while multitasking is all the rage these days and often even shows up as a required skillset on job applications, it’s actually a myth. Not only is it a myth, it turns out that even in our efforts to be multitaskers, we fail miserably and typically accomplish less… or at least we become less effective and efficient, and our level of excellence drops dramatically. We need to re-learn the highly effective, highly efficient, and true art of monotasking. It’s the best way to get things done, and quite frankly, it’s how we’re really working even when we think we’re multitasking – we’re simply making it more challenging for ourselves to perform our one task well.

Research has shown that the human mind isn’t meant to multitask. In a 2009 study, Stanford researcher Clifford Nass challenged 262 college students to complete experiments that involved switching among tasks, filtering irrelevant information, and using working memory. Nass and his colleagues expected that frequent multitaskers would outperform nonmultitaskers on at least some of these activities.

They found the opposite: Chronic multitaskers were horrible at all three tasks. And, it gets worse: Only one of the experiments actually involved multitasking, so even when they focus on a single activity, Nass concluded that frequent multitaskers use their brains less effectively.

In 2010, a study by neuroscientists at the French medical research agency showed that when people focus on two tasks simultaneously, each side of the brain tackles a different task. In essence, there is a two-task limit on what the human brain can handle. Taking on more tasks increases the likelihood of errors, so Nass suggests what he calls the 20-minute rule. Rather than switching tasks from minute to minute, dedicate a 20-minute chunk of time to a single task, then, switch to the next one.

Here’s how it works: when you’re trying to accomplish two dissimilar tasks, each one requiring some level of attention, our brain becomes an inadequate tool. It simply cannot take in and process two simultaneous, separate levels of information and store them fully into our short-term memory. And, when information doesn’t make it into short-term memory, it can’t be transferred into long-term memory to recall for later use. And taking it yet one step further – If you can’t recall it, then you can’t use it. Multitasking does not make you more efficient, it actually makes you less efficient.

We’ve all seen the scenario at meetings where someone opens up their laptop and with what appears to be great dedication and focus on getting work done, begins hammering out emails even as they seem to be engaged in the meeting. And while this may appear quite admirable, chances are they will not remember what was being discussed in the meeting while they are emailing, and there’s a good chance that their emails will contain a few errors, or they may have trouble remembering the content of their correspondence a couple of days later.

So, how did the myth of multitasking perpetuate itself? Technology. It allows us the illusion that we are doing more at once. Research shows that humans really don’t/can’t do lots of things simultaneously. Instead, we switch our attention from task to task extremely quickly. According to scientists, we simply can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. What we can do, is shift our focus from one thing to the next with amazing speed. And in doing this, we think we’re actually paying attention to everything around us at the same time. But we’re actually not. No matter how much we want to believe it, we’re really not paying attention to two or more things simultaneously. It’s just not happening. What is happening is that we’re switching between them very rapidly, giving us the illusion that we are multitasking.

Why all the emphasis on multitasking? Why try becoming proficient at something we really can’t do? I say let’s kick it old school and return to monotasking. Let’s actually become more effective, more efficient, and return to a level of excellence that is sorely needed right now in our culture, and quite frankly, in most workplaces. We have chosen speed over excellence and we will all pay a price for this. Let’s do one thing at a time and do it really well. Let’s change the conversation from how much we’ve accomplished, to what level of excellence we’re achieving. Let’s embrace monotasking. It’s actually what we’re doing anyhow – we’re just doing it really poorly.