The Myth Of Multitasking

By: Andrew Dollar

The other weekend, I was sitting at my desk working on a homework assignment. I heard the ding from my computer alerting me of an email in my work account. It was a short request for information. I instantly replied and returned to my assignment. A few minutes later, my phone buzzed with a text message. Another instant, quick reply. I again returned to my assignment. But now I am unfocused, still distracted, and well removed from my state of flow. My mind is wandering through the dark abyss of all the things I could be doing (suddenly there was a growing need to wash my car) instead of the assignment before me. Thirty minutes later, I have shopped on Amazon for stuff I don’t need, caught up with a friend, and written maybe two sentences. And I wondered why this paper was taking me so long.

Many of us operate like this all day long. There are some people who call this multitasking. They even wear it as a badge of honor. But does this really work well?

In the late ‘90s, multitasking was all the rage. You were expected to give a presentation while answering your phone and picking up lunch. If you couldn’t juggle it all, then you were seen as inefficient or, maybe, even lacking important skills. Over the past decade, the push for multitasking seems to have shifted a bit. Maybe people finally came to their senses.

Of course, 2020 brought a different type of multitasking. You were expected to stay on top of your work while away from your colleagues, keep track of virtually defined outcomes, sit in front of your computer screen all day, and stay composed during the meeting all while a five- year-old was having a meltdown immediately outside your makeshift office. Welcome to the modern multitasking challenge. I hope you came prepared.

The downside to multitasking is that you never really do any one of those things very well. You might complete them. You might even do a good job. But it is difficult to imagine a scenario where you give 100% effort if you are constantly flipping back and forth between items.

While I probably can’t provide advice to curtail the five-year-old’s meltdown, I can suggest a few things to help you achieve your state of flow and attend to the task at hand.

1. Put your phone in the other room. Phones are the #1 distraction. Texts, notifications, Tik-Tok videos, and all those cute puppy memes.
2. Sit down before you start your work and prioritize. Ask yourself, “If I complete X, or these 3 things, will I feel accomplished for the day?” Mark your intentions.
3. Set a timer for yourself. Fifteen minutes at a minimum; maybe 45 minutes if you need more. Tell yourself that for the next 15 minutes you will work on one project and one project only. Give the task 100% of your focus.

4. Go for a walk outside. Clear your head and come back with the goal of prioritizing the workload. Be careful not to fall in the trap of doing something around the house/office…or you will suddenly spend three hours alphabetizing your book collection.

More often than not, we stand in our own way. Just the other day, I was complaining that I didn’t have enough time to complete the needed work. In all honesty, I probably didn’t. What compounded the issue was that I bounced from task to task nonstop all day long. I was making slow, incremental progress on each of the projects, but the finish line still felt so far away. I wasn’t focused. I had to leave the office and recalibrate my thinking. Luckily, my office is on the square in Athens and there is plenty to peruse during a brief walk.

Only then was I able to focus on completing one simple task at a time. The next hour I felt that more was accomplished than the previous two days. And more importantly, the quality of the work product was high and I marked things off the list. Completion of a task (and subsequent mark-through on a checklist) is a euphoric feeling of accomplishment and progress. And the feeling grows as you complete one task and move to another. So, sit down, remove the distraction, prioritize, and devote a specified time to a task. As for the five-year-old, good luck.
By: Andrew Dollar
Director, Center for Lifelong Learning – 121 South Marion Street, Athens, AL 35611 – 256-233-8262