opinion

Multi-tasking: Watch Out for Cognitive Overload

Juicy Jay

Long before I developed the platform that would become JuicyAds, I learned how to program computers on a “Vic20” (like a Commodore-64) around the age of six. As the years went on I was heavily into computers ever since. It was not until Windows 95 (has it been 20 years already?) when everything truly changed. The world embraced personal computers, not just people like me who had been using them forever.

Being able to multi-task and do more than one thing at once was somewhat new for computers, which has been pretty linear with things like MS-DOS before that. Since then, there has been so much focus on getting more done, being more productive, and attempting to win the never-ending battle of not enough hours in the day.

Our world is full of distraction, but it has been shown that all the interruptions to our life is not only making our work days longer, pulling us away from our lives (and our loved ones) but also making us dumber and dropping IQ scores.

Multi-tasking has not only been a benefit, but to most it is a requirement to get more done. What if I told you that the whole concept of multi-tasking is flawed and not only are you not getting more done, but it is actually making you slower, work harder, and also causing people to make more mistakes, and possibly making people stupid.

Recent studies by Michigan State University and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory found that a few seconds of distraction can double or triple your chances of making a mistake. When those mistakes are behind a desk it can cost you money, when they’re behind the wheel of a car it can kill you. No bueno.

There have been a few recent studies about distractions and intelligence but they only found a correlation between higher intelligence and ability to handle distractions (or lack thereof).

One from the University of London, however, suggested that constant emailing and text-messaging (and likely anything else distracting) can reduce your IQ test scores by up to 15 points. That’s similar to the effects of drug use and insomnia. If you find that interesting, you may also find it equally interesting that basically nobody cares, and the number of people mindfully choosing to avoid the distractions are few.

There’s a saying — that if you try to do many things at once, you’ll do none of them well. There are lots of times when doing more than one thing is beneficial, but there’s a difference between being productive and just being busy. It’s the latter that is actually killing our ability to get anything done at all.

Putting the laundry in for an hour while you’re working, or going on vacation while JuicyAds makes your website money? Good multi-tasking. Hopping back and forth between applications that require your full attention? Bad multi-tasking.

The core of any good multi-tasking is the ability for something to operate in the background while you are doing something else. If something requires your focus to be completed, it is absolutely critical that you avoid the urge to flip to something else. This is what people do all the time when they think they are multi-tasking, and studies show over and over again that it is putting you further behind.

It takes approximately 20 minutes to regain your initial focus once you’ve been distracted or when you switch gears to another task completely. That means its taking you longer to get anything done which sucks if you're procrastinating in the first place.

When living with my ex-wife “The Blonde” there were days it was impossible to get anything done. While sharing an office she would constantly barrage me with demands completely unrelated to anything I was doing. Every time I got my rhythm back, she was poking at me again for something. It got so bad that we had to setup a second office in the house so that she was not in the same room as me. As the marriage imploded she would often come into my office to start fights that would last for hours. At one time I calculated the cost of the lost hours and days of productivity and it was in the thousands of dollars per month. No wonder I couldn’t get anything done.

Getting rid of distractions will boost your productivity and move your business forward.

Boundaries between work and home must be drawn and The Blonde just didn’t understand that while I was physically present, I wasn’t “available.” I’m not suggesting that kicking your wife out of your office is a good idea, but if they are supportive, they’ll understand.

Our world is full of distraction, but it has been shown that all the interruptions to our life is not only making our work days longer, pulling us away from our lives (and our loved ones) but also making us dumber and dropping IQ scores.

Jonathan Spira wrote about information overload and stated that in 2010, the U.S. economy lost over $997 billion to unnecessary interruptions of all kinds. Focus is the key in everything you do.

Recently, my computer was offline and Internet was down, and I was amazed at how much planning and critical thought I got done during that time. Ideas on paper were expanded into actionable tasks, and I wrote programming documents for features that had been sitting for months.

Here are some tips to get more out of your day by avoiding bad multi-tasking as well as distractions:

Do Not Frequently Check Email, or Texts

Checking email all day every day is one of the biggest productivity killers. You may think you’re being on top of things by replying as soon as that email hits your box, its very counter-intuitive. The average business person sends more than 100 emails per day. Avoiding the distraction away from what you’re actually working on is better, especially if you have an overflowing inbox (like mine). Checking only a few times per day (and focusing on handling everything at once) is the more productive path. Make decisions, reply, and move on with your day. Advertising is probably the ultimate distraction, but the Mobile Marketing Association indicated that texting is just as bad, over 90 percent are read within 3 minutes. Don’t worry, that girl you texted? She got it, read it, and is probably just ignoring you. (You’re a cool guy, she’s just a bitch ... right?) I’m sure that the pleasure centers in my brain must light up like its Christmas when I get a text, because it’s nearly always my girlfriend (maybe she sexted me something dirty!).

Find Ways to “Stack” Things During Your Day

Working “simultaneously” is a better way of thinking of good multi-tasking. Every day at home I wake up and I will do a 20-30 minute workout on my treadmill with my laptop in front of me (slow pace, high incline). Often I will ride the bike indoors (think spin class) while reading documents. Not only am I getting into better shape, I can get something else done at the same time.

It kills the boredom of working out and time actually goes faster while I’m getting something off my list for the day. When standing in line (for anything, like cashing your juicy checks) use that time to catch up on news, Twitter, Facebook. Its combing all those little time consumers that actually compliment each other that will add up to real time savings.

Work Using Micro-Deadlines

A professor at the University of California found that the average time we spend on any business task before switching to something else is around three minutes. If you’re prone to distraction or being pulled away to other tasks, one way to train yourself to focus is to utilize “micro-deadlines” during your day. This can be done by setting a clock or stop watch while you work (say for 20 minutes) and focus on working on a single task during that time.

When the 20 minutes is up, switch tasks and work on it exclusively for another 20 minutes. Repeat the process. You may be surprised at how effective this simple trick really is.

Take Breaks

What does taking breaks have anything to do with getting anything done, what the hell? Lack of focus is often related to lack of energy and lack of interest. You may find that working exclusively on a task is wildly draining of your energy.

Take some time to step away, recharge, and come back as effective as before. Use the time to read something, or walk the dog so it’s not wasted. Even your breaks can be effective. Doing your workout in the middle of the day as a break is a great way to reduce stress. It’s the balance between working hard and relaxing with things that truly recharge you that will keep you at your peak performance level.

Break Down Large Tasks Into Easier to Tackle Tasks

It’s hard to stay focused when whatever your working on is completely daunting and huge. Stop and think about how you may be able to take steps towards completion instead of trying to do it all at once without a solid plan. Tackle large projects early in the morning and late in the afternoon — most distractions happen during the core of the work day, and fighting this can be impossible in a traditional office environment.

No Interruption Times or Zones

Dedicating yourself to timeframes of no distractions (and letting those around you know that you don't want to be bothered) or going to a place where you can work uninterrupted will do wonders. Decide what you want to get done, and do it.

If you still can't get enough done during your day, there's always delegation. It's the only true way to multiple how many hours you have in the day.

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