How To Stop Multitasking by Lining Up Your Dominoes

Achieving big goals couldn’t be easier.

You can die multitasking. And take a couple of others with you as well.

This may spin your head 360 degrees. On the surface, multitasking doesn’t seem fatal. But it makes perfect sense to Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Matt Richtel. Richtel wrote a series of articles investigating the effects of using the phone while driving.

He found distracted driving to be responsible for 16% of all traffic fatalities and half a million injuries annually. How is this possible, you ask? This is how

An idle phone conversation reduces your focus by as much as 40% which is the same as being drunk.

The findings of Richtel hit a nerve with the lawmakers. They passed hundreds of bills prohibiting the use of cellphones while driving.

Apparently, people get cautious about the dangers of multitasking when their lives are at stake. This is why surgeons and pilots are expected to focus on their job at the expense of anything else.

In fact, they’re penalized if caught doing otherwise. You can’t imagine a surgeon talking to his wife during the surgery. Or a pilot doing her makeup during the takeoff.

Yet, we let these things happen in our daily lives as if it’s no big deal. We don’t think about our jobs with the same level of seriousness.

But they are!

Small daily distractions like checking Facebook while writing code are disastrous. Compound them over the span of a whole career and you’ll see why a great programmer never wrote great code.

Not only do our jobs deserve a little more respect but our personal relationships do as well. We believe we can build quality relationships without paying complete attention to the other person.

It only takes a quick glance at a couple sitting in a restaurant to realize this. Their hands are on their phone beneath the table while they’re pretending to have a conversation.

Our jobs and the people in our lives deserve our full attention. And we cannot give them our full attention if we keep on multitasking.

Yet, even after knowing all the negative (and even fatal) effects of multitasking, companies often put it at the top of their job descriptions. They look out for people who resemble machines. They want the ability to handle many projects at the same time. But they know not what they’re losing in the process.

The problem with multitasking is we think humans can do it. And we think we can do it well. But we can’t.

No One Can Multitask

The fact of the matter is, humans cannot multitask. At least not in the terms we think of it.

What are the terms in which we think of it? Let’s see.

Interestingly, multitasking as a word only existed after the 1960s. This is when people needed a new word to describe the ability of a computer to handle different processes at the same time.

And so the seed was planted.

What most people don’t understand, however, is what multitasking meant. It was meant to explain the fact that a computer can use one CPU to alternate between two tasks. In other words, it didn’t need to finish one and go to the other. It can alternately work on both of them.

What people inferred from this was quite different. They thought that the computer was simultaneously doing two things. From then on, this definition was tweaked to apply to humans as well. Thus, multitasking meant the ability of a person to complete two tasks simultaneously.

Yet, as we saw, this is neither possible for the computer, nor for humans.

Let’s Call It Juggling Not Multitasking

Have you ever seen a juggler go at it? It seems that he’s juggling three balls at once.

In reality, however, he’s throwing each ball and then catching the next one. He does it so rapidly that it feels like one movement. If you slow it down, you’ll see him consciously shifting his attention to throwing one ball, receiving the other one, changing, hands, and then throwing it again.

This is what we’re good at. Juggling. Not multitasking.

And juggling is built into the human circuitry. We have thousands of thoughts a day and we change a thought every few seconds. In fact, our predecessors evolved to hunt for food while still keeping an eye on animals that could kill them. We’re wired that way.

But this is an unconscious activity. Humans can shift from one task to another, or one thought to another. But what we can’t do is focus on each one of them.

The juggler doesn’t focus on each ball. He’s shifting his attention rapidly from one to the other. If you ask him to focus on each one, he’ll drop it soon.

Let’s see why.

All Tasks Are Not Created Equal

We concluded that we can do two or more things at once but we can’t focus on each one of them.

This is because we process different kinds of data in different parts of our brain. And we can successfully do so if we meet two conditions:

  • The brain regions don’t conflict with each other. For instance, you can’t drive and read a book at the same time. Your visual cortex can only focus on one thing.

  • Even if the brain regions don’t conflict, you’ll not be completely focused on either task. For instance, if you’re delivering a baby, you’ll likely not listen to the news. Why? Because you have to be really focused on the former case.

You can’t have it both ways. Things start to get rough when you do tasks that need the same brain channels or ones that need your full attention.

And when it does, you have to drop a ball if you want to continue to juggle.

Is There Any Good in Multitasking?

Clifford Nass, a psychology professor at Stanford University, says today’s nonstop multitasking actually wastes more time than it saves — and he says there’s evidence it may be killing our concentration and creativity too.

Nass had studied multitaskers not because he wanted to debunk their ineffective methods but because he was in ‘awe’ of people who could do two or more things at the same time (or at least think they were doing so).

So he had his researchers survey 262 students to determine how often they multitasked. From then on, they divided the group into two — high multitaskers and low multitaskers.

Nass’s hypothesis was that the high multitaskers would outperform their peers. But that assumption flipped upside down. He says, “High multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy.” They were beaten by their peers on all sorts of cognitive tasks.

According to their findings, the top 25 percent of Stanford students are using four or more media at one time whenever they’re using media. So when they’re writing a paper, they’re also Facebooking, listening to music, texting, Twittering, etc.

An even more alarming issue is the faith that the multitaskers have in their ability to multitask. It’s like a smoker saying, “I smoke all the time so it can’t be bad for me.”

He says,

“People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand. And even — they’re even terrible at multitasking. When we ask them to multitask, they’re actually worse at it. So they’re pretty much mental wrecks. (laughter)”

Not only that, but people who multitask have a faulty view of the world and what it takes to focus. They think that focus is something they know they need to do but don’t do it — like flossing your teeth.

They believe that they can shut off all distractions and then they’ll be able to focus completely. We all know where that road leads them. With constant multitasking and distraction, they lose their ability to focus on one thing. As Nass says, our brains are plastic but not elastic. They don’t snap back into shape presto.

They need time. And concentration is a skill that we need to cultivate over time.

What’s the Alternative?

People cling so dearly to multitasking because they think that’s the only way they can get ahead. We all have long to-do lists that we’d like to check off at the end of every day. And these lists never get short. They only keep getting bigger and bigger.

This makes us believe that the only way to achieve our goals is to do more at the same time. And to do more than one thing at a time ensure we get there faster (again, that’s what they think at least).

Yet, most people don’t think about another solution that’s staring them in the face — Prioritization.

Most personal and professional productivity is about finding what needs to be done and leaving the rest. It’s not about who can stay and work the longest.

It doesn’t matter how fast you’re moving if it’s in the wrong direction

And to remedy that, we need to ask ourselves tough questions to find out if what we’re doing really matters. That, however, is again not an easy task. The mind is tricky you know. It will make all sorts of justifications so you don’t have to change your habits.

Fortunately, we have a tool at our hand — deciding the ONE Thing.

What’s the ONE Thing? Originally given by Gary Keller in his book by the same name, the ONE Thing is the thing which, if done, will make everything easier or unnecessary.

That’s the focusing question:

“What’s the one thing you can do, such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

Ask yourself this question every morning. Think hard about where you’re putting your energy. Put it only in tasks that give you the greatest return on time invested.

For instance, to grow my readership, my one thing is writing. Everything will be easier if I write every day and produce content. You can also dig deeper with the question.

A few days back I asked myself, “What’s the one thing I can do to write consistently, such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

The answer was coming up with writing ideas. If I always have ideas to write about, writing is no longer a slog. It never feels like work because I know what I want to write about.

I’ve applied the same question to my spiritual life, health goals, relationships, and so on.

Life is a game of dominoes. If you start with a two-inch domino and line up a Domino 1.5 times taller repeatedly, the 57th domino will span the distance to the moon. Even better, you can flick the first domino and the rest will topple down.

Multitasking never works because you’re not lining up your dominoes. You’re spreading all of them on the floor and kicking random ones in hopes of building momentum. That will never work.

You need to find your One domino that will take care of all the rest of them. This is how you achieve big goals in life. Not by multitasking and doing a lot of things. But by lining up your dominoes right and flicking them every day.

Don’t ever multitask again. Figure out your first domino. Flick it. Forget the rest.

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Written on November 23, 2020