Long gone are the days where being a multi-tasker is a badge of honor for productivity. There are hidden dangers that can come from multi-tasking that are far greater than the occasional error on a rushed email.
Historically, multi-tasking has been used as a short-term solution to getting stuff done, faster. Recent research outlines it actually slows you down. The cost of switching from one complex task to another requires greater neurological resources (and time) than non-multi-tasking. Let’s be clear that multi-tasking is not walking and chewing gum, or even walking, chewing gum, and talking. Multi-tasking is walking, chewing gum, talking to a friend and also answering a text message to a co-worker. From a science lens, our brains are simply not efficient in switching from one complex activity to the next, or even worse, trying to do two tasks (that are not highly automatic) at the same time.
There’s a huge loss of productivity because of the cost of time. Every intrusion, email, text, phone call, or knock on the office door demands that you make a micro-decision: Should I respond? Should I ignore? One study estimates that people lose 40% of their performance outcomes because they are switching back and forth.
That’s actually not the biggest issue.
Multi-tasking is essentially the de-training of deep focus. Deep focus is one of a handful of entry points into Flow State or the most optimal state a human can be in. While in Flow State, we are simply at our best, completely absorbed in the task at hand. Our sense of self disappears. Action and awareness fuse together. We lose track of time. Flow is marked by exceptional performance that just flows out of us.
Steven Kotler, author of The Rise of Superman, a best-selling book on Flow State, accurately captures the relationship between flow and focus, with this phrase: ‘flow follows focus.’ If deep focus is a pathway into optimized performance, we are in the competition of our lives to choose how to focus well.
We live in a culture that’s aggressively pushing in the opposite direction of allowing us to practice focus and science, history, and the world’s top performers are telling us it is essential to realizing our potential.
Another slippery slope for multi-tasking comes at the cost of relationships. We all know how it feels to be in a conversation with someone who’s answering emails at the same time. You know, and they know, that they are not “all in.” That not-so-subtle cue cuts a deep gash into the quality of the relationship that sometimes we barely even realize. It sends a signal that my need to answer this email, or this call, or this text is more significant than the fabric of our relationship.
So, what do we do about multi-tasking?
Train deep focus and practice it, just like any other skill. Conversations are a great way to do just that. One of the characteristics of many world-class doers and thinkers that I’ve worked with, is that they are excellent at listening. They are excellent at deeply listening. They understand that something in just about every conversation could unlock a well of dormant potential. They get around people that are switched-on, highly skilled and smart. They use the same focusing skills they apply to their sport and craft and use that in conversations as well. They are better learners because they are more present in more conversations.
Move your cell phone out of your eye sight, especially during meals. Move your cell phone off your breakfast, lunch and dinner table. Focus on the task at hand (eating) or the company that you keep (conversations). When you are in a conversation, and you know that you need to get a text out, there’s a way to dignify the relationship, and shift attention to the text. It’s as simple as, “Hey, what we’re talking about is important to both of us, and I need just a few minutes to send this text out. After I do that, I’m all yours.”
Knowing how to lock-in to the present moment and being able to lock-in for an extended period of time, are accelerants to deep learning as well as consistent performance. To that end, multi-tasking, defined as task-switching, is the antagonist of deep focus and can erode the quality of our relationships. All of these hidden dangers impact you-becoming-you, moving you toward your full potential. Are you becoming the person that you are capable of becoming? Is multi-tasking getting you closer or slowing you down?