Multitasking, a myth or reality?
Women & Design // WID Insights
Watching Netflix on the side, multiple tabs open, reading a book, sipping your drink, and texting your friends all at once. We have become professionals at multitasking. But is it truly as effective as we believe it out to be?
Picture this, you're watching a YouTube video while writing an email, when suddenly your phone pings for your attention, you pick it up to check who it is - with no intention of answering right away because you're writing that email, remember? - but when you pick it up, you see your friend commented on your post, you open it to check what they said. Forty-five minutes have passed, you never checked what your friend tagged you in, you're down 3 videos on YouTube running in the background, you don't remember what you were doing in the first place. Oh yeah! The e-mail.
Whenever I walk into my grandfather's room to call him out for lunch, he never seems to hear me. I'm standing 5 feet away, waving my arms in the air trying to get his attention. Despite all my desperate attempts he's isolated in his work and doesn't seem to acknowledge my presence. It used to shock me, misunderstanding his focus on ignorance. But I soon realized my mistake. How can someone be so uber focused on a task, and not know someone else is in the room? To me, it was astonishing. I'd get distracted by a crow outside my window, yet he can still focus with me being 5 feet away - how does he do it?
Maybe it has something to do with generational traits, or perhaps it's simply a trained habit developed over years. "If it's something you like, you spend all your focus and energy on it. You don't know when time passes by" he tells me, which shockingly was similar to everything Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles were trying to explain in 'Ikigai'. It seems as if my grandfather had managed to find his frequency of flow, and successfully apply it to tasks throughout the day.
On the other hand, I used to take pride in my ability to multi-task, society and social media seems to celebrate 'hustle-culture' and 'multi-tasking' as if it were the norms to daily living. But where do we draw the line? Where does multi-tasking end? What measures the efficiency of it's outcomes? Who determines if you've been 'productive' enough? I don't know. But I think I do know where it started. When I was in high school in Brunei, I lived in a boarding school. We'd have study times where we had to come down into the study room and everyone would work - It used to be quiet, and silent. Everyone would focus on their own homework, study and complete it in the 1.5 hour slot. So different to what study/work seemed like in university. We weren't allowed to listen to music, or watch movies while we worked - as unfair as it seemed back then, I now understand how necessary it was to lay those ground rules. We would channel our flow and had the ability to focus and let our thoughts run back then.
Over a few months, with enough unity within the students we were able to convince our tutors to allow music while we worked. So now, we could listen to music while we studied. This was sometime from 2010 - 2015, so you know the type of songs we'd listen to. Everyone had earphones in while they worked, I hated it. I couldn't concentrate, but I also didn't want to be the only one without earphones (#fomo), and so I started it too. Come university, I had advanced into watching movies while working, I now absolutely couldn't stand silence and I had to have something playing in the background. My dependency, though started off innocent, derailed into a long road of distracted multi-tasking attempts. (As I am writing this, I took 3 social media breaks until now, a live example folks)
"Flow" is when you know exactly what to do next, when it's just you and your practice. When there is no future, no past. there is only the present. You're focused entirely and consciously, you're immersed in that sole experience and you're not thinking about, or distracted by anything else. Your ego dissolved, and you become a part of what you are doing. I'm sure you've been enchanted in a flow state while doing something you love; this could be ceramics, sketching, creating music, animating, coding, developing or just cooking. We've all felt time vanish when we lose ourselves in an activity we enjoy - so why then, do we mess it up by multi-tasking?
Concentrating on a single task is perhaps the greatest obstacle of the 21st century, with endless distractions and technology surrounding us. We often think combining tasks will help us save time, but in fact it has the opposite effect. How so? Well, turns out our brains can take in millions of bits of information, but can only process a few dozen per second. So multi-tasking for a human brain is actually switching between tasks very quickly. We're not computers, unfortunately, so we end up spending all our energy and time switching between tasks without actually accomplishing as much.
Technology is great, but only as long as we're in control of it. It has been scientifically shown that if we continually ask our brains to switch between tasks too often, we end up wasting more time, making more mistakes, all while remembering less of what we've done, and accomplishing less. Yes, listening to music, while reading a textbook and taking notes and maybe checking your phone once every 20 minutes counts as multi-tasking.
In my last post (Productivity in a remote world), I touched upon a study carried out demonstrating (and proving) how multi-tasking slows us down. But how do we improve? How do we ensure to focus on a single task? Well, it's simple.
Put yourself in a distraction-free environment
Have control over what you are doing, every moment.
Concentrating on a single task has multiple benefits, here's an extract from Ikigai - showcasing the contrast between multitasking and focusing on a single task.
A few things I've resonated with, over the years has helped me help myself when I find myself falling prey to the falsely advertised benefits of multi-tasking, as appealing as they can be.
I've started to turn my phone off an hour before I go to bed, or an hour after I wake up (I use DND mode, or turn off my Wi-Fi). This helps me train my brain to focus on myself, and not get distracted by the numerous things the world throws at us on a daily basis. I believe a good start and end to a day matter the most.
I've started to use a Focus Assist (Google's Digital wellbeing app), and turn off all distractions for during the work day. This includes all social media apps, and other non-work related apps. I don't include WhatsApp, to stay in touch with people closest to me in cases of emergency! :)
The last Sunday of the month, I try to do a digital detox. While working on Nico, I was made introduced to the monthly detox ritual through my mentor's partner. I tried it, and realized just how tough it was to spend a day without screens - no TV, no phones, no laptops, iPad, anything. It's wild just how dependent we've designed ourselves to become.
Set a certain time to do 'admin work' like replying to emails, getting back to people, etc. It helps to tell yourself, "Okay from 9-9:30am, I reply to emails. And then, at the end of the day (5-5:30pm)" this creates a disciplined boundary while calming your millennial self to ensure you'll be getting back to that ping. Bundle all your routine tasks, and create time slots for when each is scheduled for.
Meditate. My goal is to meditate 3 times a day, once at the start, once in the middle and lastly before I go to bed.
Create a workspace for yourself. Design your surroundings to what works best for you. When you arrive at your work desk, you need to ensure it's one that feels safe enough for creativity to flow and you to enjoy your work.
A focused mind lives in the present, free from worry and in control. A focused mind will be clear of obstacles and allows the flow of thought to be unleashed. Our ego fades, and we're no longer the ones controlling the task - the task leads us. And I think that is when true creativity is unleashed. Cherish your practice, and give it the right space and environment to be nurtured, and it will reap you it's benefits ✨
I hope this brings you what you needed, I highly recommend reading Ikigai, chapter IV: Finding flow in everything you do. It changed my outlook on multitasking, and I hope it helps you too.
We're always open to other perspectives, opinions, and a good chat over some coffee or tea. We'd love to host a conversation with you, head on over to our Discord and get in touch!
With 🧡 Dhruti.