You're not multitasking; why switch-tasking is ruining your productivity

Kunal Gupta, CEO, Polar

When we think we are multitasking, we are really “switch tasking”. And switch tasking has a real negative impact on our productivity, effectiveness, safety and perhaps most importantly, happiness. Having greater awareness of the impact of switch tasking has influenced the thousands of micro-decisions I make throughout my day that ultimately impact how I feel.

How multitasking and switch tasking are different

Multitasking is when we are doing multiple tasks aligned to the same outcome. Driving a car involves checking the rearview mirror, watching the odometer, looking at the side mirrors, checking blind spots, oh and watching the road ahead of you through the windshield. Cooking a meal in similar, in that the stove may be on, while you are chopping vegetables, wiping the counter and following a recipe.

Switch tasking is when our attention is on different tasks that are not directly related to the same outcome. Going from working on a project, to reading something on Slack, to eavesdropping on the conversation next to you, to eating lunch, to checking Facebook, to answering an email and back to the project is switch tasking. Our brain can handle multitasking. Our brain does not do so well switch tasking and there is a real cost to switch tasking.

Never achieving a flow state

Switch tasking gets in the way of achieving a flow state for the mind. This is when we are able to really focus and do our best work. As knowledge workers in the 21st century, our contributions rely on our ability to use our mind effectively to solve problems. And a flow state not only makes solving problems easier but also much more enjoyable. We enjoy work in a state of flow because it no longer feels like work.

Research shows that it takes 25 minutes to return to a task that we get distracted from. And yes, there are many distractions in our day, including email, Slack, notifications, social media, people physically walking up to you, nearby chatter, bio breaks, food and snacks, and of course, meetings. I absolutely love this video from a product marketing manager at Google who speaks about managing time. Really nails it that with focus, we can be effective, productive and happy.

Developing creative insight happens best for me when my mind is able to daydream and wander. Which also means my mind is not reacting to technology or trying to do too many things at once. This is why I make it a habit to disconnect from technology while taking time away.

Missing out on life

I am often in New York, running around Manhattan between meetings and can always tell when other pedestrians in front of me are distracted, simply by the way they walk! When we are distracted from trying to switch task, we start to miss out on life around us.

A study from the Western Washington University had a clown riding a unicycle around campus who 75% of students nearby did not notice while talking on their phones. Inattentional blindness is what the researchers called this, highlighting that when distracted our brains do not register what is happening around us.

Oh, and we also tend to eat more when trying to switch task, which research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition uncovered.

It slows us down

Contrary to popular belief, switch tasking does not save us time. It costs us more time. Here is an exercise to try if you don’t believe me (you’ll need a timer, maybe use your smartphone).

3 tasks. First, time yourself saying out loud the first 15 numbers (1, 2, 3,...until 15). Next, time yourself saying the first 15 letters of the alphabet (A, B, C,...until O). Now, time yourself saying the first number followed by the first letter (1-A), then the next number and next letter (2-B), and so forth, until you get to the end (15-O).

How long did it take to count the first 15 numbers? 3 seconds or so. The first 15 letters of the alphabet? Likely another 3 seconds. And how long did it take to count the first number followed by the first letter, until the end? Maybe between 12 - 18 seconds. In doing this exercise dozens of times with others, I’ve seen it takes 2.5x longer when switch tasking than to do each task individually and add the time up!

Where we go from here

What I am sharing here are simple insights based on my own experience and from some research I have done on the topic. I would love to run experiments to surface data, including measuring my heart rate (proxy indicator for stress?) throughout the day as I am switching tasks, using the camera in my MacBook to measure the level of distraction from my eyes moving all over the screen or understanding how the frequency of my brain waves may change based on tasks (or the switching between tasks).

Now in writing this post on the impacts of switch tasking on our day-to-day lives, I also started to wonder on a deeper question. Why do we feel the need to multitask? More to come in a future post on this.

And in case you’re wondering, I wrote this post in about 40 minutes and did not switch task once and am thankful for that!

Kunal Gupta is the Founder & CEO of Polar and a Founding Member of Publisher 2020.  He leads a talented team transforming the media publishing industry with technology. Polar provides a technology platform that over 1,500 publishers around the world use to strengthen and grow their digital content marketing businesses. He is also passionate about leadership and finding focus and calm in a modern era. Connect with him on LinkedInMedium or Twitter.