When I set out to write a piece about multitasking, my goal was to review and present some scientific studies showing exactly how multitasking impacts productivity. Because it definitely impacts productivity, right? I hear that all of the time.
As it turns out, I couldn’t find much to support that claim. In fact, I found one study that showed multitasking actually makes people more productive.
What I did find, though, was that even if multitasking were to impact your productivity, it would be the least detrimental of its side effects. The true costs of multitasking are to your mental health, happiness, focus, and ability to learn new things. So the real reason you shouldn’t multitask isn’t that you want to get more done. It’s because you’re looking after your well-being.
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We often think of multitasking as doing more than one thing concurrently: Watching YouTube videos while chatting with friends on Discord (one of my teenage daughter’s favorite activities), or driving while talking on the phone.
Multitasking is both doing multiple things at once (like driving and talking on the phone) and alternating between different tasks instead of finishing one and moving on to another (like responding to emails incrementally while working on a larger project).
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We’re all splitting our time between larger, higher priority tasks and consistent interruptions from lower-priority, less time-consuming to-dos that arrive via email, text, instant message, and face-to-face interruptions.
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The time it takes to stop doing one task and focus on another is best measured in milliseconds.
That’s what several researchers found while studying the impact of task switching. They tested a variety of different types of task-switching activities and found that it rarely takes longer than two seconds to perform the mental control processes that are required to switch from one task to another.
But that seems to conflict with the statistic I’ve seen cited frequently that says it takes 23 minutes to refocus after an interruption.
That’s because the 23-minute statistic is often cited incorrectly.
It comes from a research study conducted by Gloria Mark, Daniela Gudith, and Ulrich Klocke. In their study, 48 participants had one main task to focus on, but they were also directed to deal with other tasks as they came in (i.e., interruptions via email).
When interrupted, an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds passed between the moment of interruption and the point where participants resumed working on the main task. So the 23 minutes isn’t the amount of time it takes to refocus after switching tasks; it includes the time it takes to complete the task that interrupted you.
And though a 23-minute pause due to an interruption isn’t an insignificant amount of time, the researchers discovered something interesting. The people who were interrupted managed to complete their main tasks in less time than people who weren’t interrupted—and with no measurable difference in quality.
“Surprisingly, our results show that interrupted work is performed faster,” the researchers write. “We offer an interpretation. When people are constantly interrupted, they develop a mode of working faster to compensate for the time they know they will lose by being interrupted.”
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“Interrupted work may be done faster, but at a price,” they write. “After only 20 minutes of interrupted work, people reported significantly higher stress, frustration, workload, effort, and pressure.” So it’s quite possible that you can multitask all day long with little to no impact on your productivity or the quality of the work you produce. But behind the scenes, all of that multitasking is likely taking its toll on your overall mental health and wellbeing.
Additionally, Gloria Mark conducted a subsequent study that found that even if multitasking your way through interruptions makes you more productive, you’re likely to feel as though you weren’t productive.
And feeling less productive, Mark found, also takes a toll on your mental health. The second study found that people who felt they’d been productive over the course of the day reported having more positive moods at the end of the day. But the more often people were interrupted by emails, switched tasks on their computer screens, or participated in face-to-face discussions, the more likely they were to report feeling that they hadn’t been productive.
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[T]he Cleveland Clinic’s Dr. Cynthia Kubu explains that by multitasking, “we slowly lose our ability to focus enough to learn. Attention is essential to learning.” So regardless of your productivity while multitasking, it’s likely that you’re not growing in your skills.
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[A] 2012 study found that people were less likely to multitask and experienced less stress when they didn’t have access to email. Another stufythree years later measured the stress levels of people who had unlimited access to their emails one week against their stress levels another week where they were only allowed to check their email three times a day. “During the limited email use week, participants experienced significantly lower daily stress than during the unlimited email use week,” researchers found. Then, in 2017, researchers looked at the impact of push notifications. With push notifications disabled, participants were much more likely to report that they felt less distracted and more productive. Additionally, 11 of the 30 participants reported they felt less stressed with push notifications disabled.
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Another study led by Gloria Mark even found that technology’s frequent interruptions train us to self-interrupt.
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And once we’re stuck in this cycle of self-interrupting, it stresses us out to not check in. This point comes from research conducted at Duke University’s Center for Advanced Hindsight. Researchers found that people get an average of 65-80 notifications on their phones every day. When participants had access to check those notifications as often as they wanted, they felt “stressed, unhappy, interrupted, and non-productive.”
On the flip side, when participants were asked to turn their notifications off completely, that also caused stress. People reported feeling anxious and worried that they were missing something important.
Link to the rest at Zapier
The OP includes links to a variety of apps and computer settings that can control how often and when notifications pop up on your computer, tablet, cell phone, etc.
So, here’s a question: Do serious authors tend to multitask or not?
If authors don’t multitask, are there particular practices they employ to deal with interruptions generated by their connected devices?
PG is not the type of writer that most of the visitors to TPV are, but when he’s working on a complex legal document, he shuts off or ignores almost everything else.
If he takes a writing break, he may check email and/or text messages to see if anything pressing shows up, but when he starts writing again, everything else is minimized or taken off his screen entirely.
It does help that PG works at Casa PG instead of the busy offices which characterized his earlier professional and business life, so his only non-digital interruptions are from Mrs. PG who is usually writing when PG is doing the same thing.