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The True Cost of Multitasking Isn’t Productivity—It’s Mental Health

21 May 2019

From Zapier:

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.

. . . .

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).

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.”

. . . .

“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.

. . . .

[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.

. . . .

[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.

. . . .

Another study led by Gloria Mark even found that technology’s frequent interruptions train us to self-interrupt.

. . . .

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.

Writing Advice

15 Comments to “The True Cost of Multitasking Isn’t Productivity—It’s Mental Health”

  1. “So, here’s a question: Do serious authors tend to multitask or not?”

    This begs the question as to whether I’m a “serious author” or not! I think I am, but that’s just my (self-serving) opinion.

    Anyway, I certainly don’t “multitask” when I’m writing. At the keyboard, for me, everything else goes away. Even keeping track of time. (For me, the difficulty is sitting down and starting the writing. But once I start, I’m OK.)

    And I don’t think PG is unusual in his focus when he’s writing. I believe most writers are this way, too.

    IMHO, “multitasking” is an excuse to NOT do what one should be doing at any particular point in time. And a lame excuse, at that.

  2. The science thus far has been conclusive for me: we *think* we are good at multitasking even when studies show we aren’t.

    I don’t multi-task unless forced. I don’t even multi-task on projects: I write one book until it’s over. This is far more relaxing for me than spreading my efforts all over the place.

    *shrug* My experience, anyway.

  3. I have to turn my email off when I write. And I don’t answer phone calls or texts unless they’re from immediate family (who don’t normally contact me during my regular writing time). Because then my response is needed. Email & talking to other people pulls me right out of my writing zone.

  4. Terrence OBrien

    People figured all this out long before email and connected digital devices.

    Office doors closed. Assistants called secretaries back then were told, “No interruptions.” The little unused conference room provided a great hiding place. Pagers were left in drawers.

    When the office door opened again, you got a handful of pink message slips and quickly sorted through them. Trash some, return calls of others, hold off on the rest.

    Connected devices don’t interrupt us. Paying attention to them interrupts us. The techniques are the same today as the always were. My phone has a volume control. My laptop closes. My TV has an on/off switch. My email doesn’t ding every time something arrives. Nor do any popups announce their silent arrival.

    People multitask because they choose to, and set themselves and their devices up to do it.

    But serious authors? Who knows? Wonder what regular old authors do?

  5. I’ve turned out 44 novels, 7 novellas and almost 200 short stories and their attendant collections in the past 5 years. I write fiction, on average, 3 hours per day.

    When an email comes in I get a pop-up notification on my screen. I glance at it. If it needs my attention, I answer it, then go back to my WIP. The characters are waiting, arms folded over their chests and toes tapping. They aren’t wild about breaks.

    But when I come back, we dive directly back into the storyline just as if I’d never left.

    I also take an intentional break about every hour (about ever 1000 words) for a few minutes up to an hour or so. The secret to productivity, I believe, is not whether you’re interrupted, but whether you keep coming back. Oh, and I love what I do, a definite plus.

  6. Felix J. Torres

    It’s not the technology, it’s the humans
    Bad study/work habits, lack of focus, lack of attention to detail. Some have them, some don’t. Guess who does best?

    • Felix J. Torres

      Speaking of the humans: we’re all superb multitaskers…or we’re dead. The human brain is a fantastic multitasking computer (those advanced faux-AI programs all run imitation neural networks, pale imitations of the human brain) but most of that capacity is tied in keeping us alive, breathing, talking, moving, processing sensory input, searching memory or recording what we experience for future reference.

      All that and more happens simultaneously so we don’t fall down when trying to walk and chew gum. It just happens at a level below the process we call “consciousness”. And consciousness is a very resource-intensive process and in any given instant it can only focus on one thing at a time.

      All these stories about “multitasking” are just about people dividing their attention among multiple tasks switching their focus from one to the other. Some people are actually good at prioritizing active tasks and switching their focus effectively. They are few and far between.

      Most people are best advised to prioritize major tasks up-front and deal with them one at a time, giving full attention and focus. It’s not a hard thing to learn but it is one of the many necessary things the educational system doesn’t teach.

      • Terrence OBrien

        Think that guy moving across African plains with a couple spears and a water skin had the luxury of focusing only on the hunt? Think he got back to the campfire and told everyone what a great multitasker he was? If he focused only on the hunt, there was a vacant spot around the fire.

        • Felix J. Torres

          He was a fast task switcher but when he was running from the lion, all the attention was on running, not on the antelope he was hunting moments before hearing the lion growl.

          Moment by moment prioritizing.

          • Terrence OBrien

            Absolute focus was once a matter of life and death. Today, it’s expanded to writers who want to get their daily word quota.

  7. If someone were to watch me while I am writing, they would probably say that I’m multitasking wildly.

    The thing is, I’m at home these days, and take care of most of the domestic tasks. So I’ll leave the keyboard to run a sink load of dishes through, or get laundry into the washer, or dryer, or scrub out a toilet, or prep some food to make a meal, or… None of these engage my language center – and it keeps chugging away without interruption.

    In fact, I know that these things make me more productive. I’m not sitting in front of the screen, thinking that I need to put words up there – words that I have not fully thought out yet. I go down a lot fewer dead ends that way. Deleting several paragraphs or even pages really makes me feel that I’ve wasted my time.

  8. I think multitasking is grossly over-simplified. I have always said I had Attention Excess Syndrome– I very easily drop into a state where my attention is completely subsumed in a problem. I remember I once looked up to see six people clustered in my office waiting for me to notice them while I stole management time to code a high performance memory management module.

    However, I’ve never had a problem dealing with several people simultaneously, taking in an issue, delegating it to my subconscious, moving on to the next issue, returning to the first issue several issues later and popping up with a useful suggestion or observation. Some tasks take concentration, others need gestation. Problem take concentration must be single tasked, problems that need gestation are best multi-tasked.

    Gestating a task that needs concentration is counterproductive– you never get anywhere. Concentration on a task that needs gestation is a waste of time. Your subconscious has resources that your conscious mind can’t touch. You deny your subconscious resources at your peril.

    I believe effective thinkers combine multi-tasking with single tasking. The best of us assign tasks to the most productive mode.

    I admit that having retired, the pace of demands for multi-tasking has slowed, but I still try to switch to new tasks when I feel like further concentration is pointless. The way I manage my attention has changed. I suggest that everyone could benefit from consciously deciding what to multi-task and what to concentrate on.

    Multi-tasking is great when appropriate, and so is concentration. Saying one is superior to the other misses the point.

  9. To me, the key is the distinction between multi-tasking and distraction. It’s multi-tasking when I decide to do it. When someone else decides for me, it’s distraction. I really hate being distracted.

  10. Lindsay Buroker

    I’ll multi-task when I’m doing admin stuff. Answer an email, work on one to go out to the newsletter, check social medial, post on the Facebook author page, check ads to make sure nobody is bleeding me dry, chat with friends on Twitter, etc.

    When I’m writing, I write. If I’m having a hard time staying focused, I’ll turn off the wifi, but I don’t usually need to do that. I just throw some music without words on in the background and know I’m not taking a break until I’ve written X number of words.

    So I guess it depends on the task at hand. For writing, I tend to get into a flow state, so interruptions are irritating. I rarely flow when answering email. 😛

  11. For my day job, I’m a software architect…which is basically a heavy multi-tasking role. I’m not comfortable when I’m not multi-tasking. When I write, I have a pipeline of stories I’m working on, all at different stages. So, I work on about 8 stories at a time … Sometimes outlinbg, editing, first draft, second draft, copyedits, etc. It works for me, but I wouldn’t recommend it for most people.

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