What Multitasking Does to Our Brains

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We all know this and have heard it hundreds of times. To work efficiently we have to single task. No multitasking.

And yet, we let it slip. We end up eating lunch in front of the TV with our laptop open. We browse Twitter and Facebook while sending emails and chatting in multiple Gchat windows. We know we really should be focusing on just that one assignment, blog post, proposal or piece of code but we just can’t.

For the vast majority of us, multitasking by working on different things at the same time makes us less efficient. Why the heck is it so hard to focus on just one thing then?

Recently I started to develop a new work routine online, that specifically focuses on singletasking only. The results I got were amazing and I want to share more on this further down.

To understand what actually goes on in our brains and see if it all makes sense, I went ahead and found some stunning research and answers to these questions:

Why we multitask in the first place: It makes us feel good

To understand why we always fall into the habit of multitasking, when we know we shouldn’t, I found some very interesting studies. The answer is in fact quite simple:

“[People who multitask] are not being more productive — they just feel more emotionally satisfied from their work.”

This is what researcher Zhen Wang mentions in a recent study on multitasking. She mentioned that if we study with our books open, watch TV at the same time and text friends every so often, we get a great feeling of fulfillment. We are getting all these things done at once, and we feel incredibly efficient.

Unfortunately, exactly the opposite is the case. Students who engaged heavily in multitasking activities felt great, but their results were much worse than that of people who didn’t multitask.

Screen Shot 2014-06-12 at 10.44.09 AM

Another problem is that multitaskers seem very efficient from the outside, so we want to be like them. We see someone who can juggle emailing, doing phone calls and writing a blogpost on the side and think, “That is incredible! I want to be able to do that too!”

So very unknowingly, we put a lot of pressure onto ourselves to juggle more and more tasks. When really, it only seemingly makes us more productive. The daily output, as Wang found, only decreases.

What is going on in our brains when we multitask?

The interesting part is that our brains can’t multitask at all. If we have lunch, fire open five Facebook chat windows and also try to send off an email, it isn’t that our brain focuses on all these activities at the same time.

Instead, multitasking splits the brain. It creates something researchers have called “spotlights”. So all your brain is doing is trying to frantically switch between the activities eating, to writing emails and answering chat conversations.

In the image below, you can see the different brain activities for various tasks that the brain switches between. It jumps back and forth as you focus on each task for a few seconds at a time:

Clifford Nass, a researcher at Stanford, assumed that those who multitask heavily would nonetheless develop some other outstanding skills. He thought that they would be amazing at filtering information, switching between tasks quickly and keeping a high working memory.

He found that none of these 3 points are true:

“We were absolutely shocked. We all lost our bets. It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.”

People who multitask a lot are in fact a lot worse at filtering irrelevant information and also perform significantly worse at switching between tasks, compared to singletaskers.

Now most studies all point towards the fact that multitasking is very bad for us. We get less productive and skills like filtering out irrelevant information decline.

Personally, I noticed the same results even before I knew about these studies. I decided to put some processes in place, especially with working online, to win my productivity back and ban multitasking from my workflow once and for all.

How I developed a singletasking workflow

Before I learned about any of the above, I had my own struggles with multitasking. I would have 2 separate email inboxes, TweetDeck, Facebook and an instant messaging tool all open.

The thing was that I felt very much on top of things, hitting “command + tab” all the time to check if I missed anything in one of the windows. With every tab switch it felt as my head would get bigger, even though I was getting less and less done. Both my brain and my work was rather scattered.

I had to stop this immediately to work more productively on Buffer. To solve my multitasking madness, there were three key changes I made:

1. The single browser tab habit

One strategy I put in place is something I call single-tab browsing. I limit myself to only keeping one browser tab open whenever I am working. That way I have to really prioritize the most important task I’m working on.

Let’s look at an example. Some key tasks I am juggling are email support via our HelpScout inbox, Tweets for our @bufferapp account, blog posts for the Buffer blog and emails from my personal inbox.

Before, I would have all these things open at the same time. Now I work through them one by one. Only my HelpScout inbox is open. Then only TweetDeck is open to reply to any Tweets. Then I move on to close everything and only open Word to start writing. And finally I move to my personal email inbox, closing everything else again.

Doing this is only possible with another improvement I put in place:

 

2. The evening planning routine

This is my Moleskine filled with
brainstormed tasks for the day.

 

The second thing that really makes my single browser tab habit possible is the evening planning routine.

Every evening, I sit down and jot down what I want to get done the next day. That’s a very common technique, and probably something that you have done before also. It’s a simple to-do list, that you learn to keep in elementary school.There was only a slight problem with to-do lists. I wouldn’t stick to them.

So I added a twist to it. Besides jotting down what I wanted to do, I would add a brief brainstorm with Joel. Doing this seemed like a small change, but made a huge difference.

When we sat down for just 10 minutes every evening to briefly walk through the tasks of the next day, everything changed in terms of productivity.

Instead of just writing tasks down, I was forced to think through them and explain them to someone else: “I want to write this article on this type of content, because of this inspiration I had. I will structure it like this..” and so forth.

The to-do list I jotted down didn’t change, but it felt as if I had done half the work of it all in my head already. The next day, all I had to do is look at the task and get it done.

If you keep a to-do list, but rarely stick to it, try the same and find a colleague, spouse or friend with whom to brainstorm 10 minutes every evening. You can do this for each other and frankly, it becomes a lot of fun to meet up for this quick brainstorm every day.

3. Change work location at least once a day

This is something that inevitably has made me more productive and focused on singletasking. We read many times that we have to work on building a comfortable work space to focus. What I found was this: I had to create many of them.

To regain focus after finishing one task and moving on to the next one, just spending 5 minutes as a break, getting a drink or similar didn’t work. Nor did closing the laptop for 5 minutes or standing up from my desk. I had to physically move from one place to another as part of my daily routine.

Most times I work out of my apartment for the first half of the day. Then I have a list of coffee shops I can go to, or the lounge area in our apartment building.

I know moving around isn’t possible for everyone. There are some very creative workarounds some companies have come up with though, that might help you here. Valve, dubbed “the bossless company”, gives every employee a desk mounted on wheels so they can change location during the day.

Quick last fact: listening to music while working isn’t multitasking

In case you were wondering whether now you also have to give up listening to music to be more productive, rest assured, that isn’t the case, Stanford Professor Clifford Nass mentions:

“In the case of music, it’s a little different. We have a special part of our brain for music, so we can listen to music while we do other things.”

Personally, I am very excited to challenge my own workflows and see how I can exchange my existing routines for more effective ones. Singletasking has had one of the most powerful effects more me. This has worked both for results for Buffer and my personal projects. Of course, this only works if grouped with other habits that set you up for a successful singletasking day.

How do you approach multitasking online? Do you have mechanisms in place that help you to conquer all distractions on the web? What do you do to avoid multitasking?

  • http://twitter.com/JoHarris0n Jo Harrison

    Great post Leo, and something I’ll definitely try out… I have written to-do lists and not stuck to them, but I haven’t tried the 1 tab at a time yet, I currently have only 5 tabs open but sometimes this can be up to 10! Oh and I have found another tool which I prefer to Tweetdeck, it’s called Pluggio, check it out if you get time… :)

    • LeoWid

      Hi Jo, awesome to see you here and glad the ideas are useful! Yes, same here, I tried to do lists for a long time, but only once I did the additional brainstorms with Joel it really worked out!

      Ah yes, I’ve heard great things about Pluggio, will definitely check them out! :)

  • http://www.timeatlas.com Anne H

    Nice write up. I like that you mentioned changing work location. I also find it helpful to turn off email and related visual or audio alerts.

    • LeoWid

      Hi Anne, yes, I was quite against changing work location at first, but over time it really helped me a ton to get more done! :)

  • http://twitter.com/TribeO Anthea Kawakib

    that’s really odd, I find listening to music while trying to work extremely distracting.

    • LeoWid

      Very interesting to hear Anthea, I believe @Joelgascoigne mentioned the same, but when he switches to listening to music without lyrics it works well for him, maybe that’s something to try?

      • utkarsh apoorva

        True. Listening to JoeSat while going through this blog. @LeoWid:disqus too many open tabs probably mean that we are monitoring too many things – essentially “longpolling”. Wonder if an application can do that for us :-)

    • http://www.qualitylogoproducts.com/blog Mandy Kilinskis

      I’m the same, Anthea. I can’t listen to music with lyrics while writing. However, I do find classical music to be great for getting things accomplished.

    • Jesse Gilbride

      Baroque classical and some Bassnectar keep me on track. Often it’s the lyrics to a song that are too distracting, not the music itself, unless dissonant.

  • http://twitter.com/MeredithGould MeredithGould

    Here’s my question about the research: were diagnoses like OCD, ADD, or ADHD factored in? My sense is that multi-tasking helps calm and focus folks with those issues.

    • LeoWid

      Ah, great point Meredith, I don’t think that was factored in and it makes a lot of sense that that would help people with these conditions a lot, glad you mentioned it!

      • http://softwarebuzzer.com Suresh peters

        When we are doing multi-tasking we used to switch from one task to another and brain loose calm and loose concentration. To complete any thing with more effectively peace of mind and focused is imp.

        Thanks @LeoWid:disqus I will follow the steps you mentioned above and let you know after implementing it. Thanks for the great post

  • https://www.facebook.com/DakinAssociates Shaun Dakin

    Great stuff. Thanks

    • LeoWid

      Glad you liked it Shaun! :)

  • Michael

    Such a great article … I am finding the move from multi-tasking to single-tasking to be very difficult. In “training” my brain to multi-task my attention span has become like a spoiled toddler and so to keep myself focused has become such a discipline … I appreciate your suggestions and look forward to putting them into practice.

    The fact I read this article in the middle of trying to single task shows I’m obviously still in process!

    • LeoWid

      Hi Michael,

      Great to comment and absolutely, you make a great point. I believe the fact that we humans are easily distracted is actually a good thing by nature and has probably saved our lives from lots of bad things we would have not noticed would be single taskers all the time.

      It’s just that for working, I found it very powerful to develop a singletasking habit ! :)

  • http://www.baptisteducation.org/ Joshua Rivers

    Well, I’m reading this, TV on, and eating lunch. I never really thought too much about multitasking. I’ll definitely take this information to help reduce/eliminate my multitasking. Thanks!

    • LeoWid

      hehe, nice on Joshua, it took me a quite a while, what I like best about singletasking is not just that I get more productive, but also that my head just feels a lot clearer! Thanks for stopping by! :)

  • http://www.andersgerdmar.com/ Anders Gerdmar

    Thanks for clarifying this, not only with common sense, but with an explanation of how the brain reacts to multitasking! Honestly, I’m not able to listen to music while working, only of doing something really mundane… But thanks for the idea of changing place… I think you’re right, and I’ll test it!

    • LeoWid

      Hi Anders,

      Awesome, give me a shout of which results you are getting from changing place, would love to see how it works for you!

      Yep, I find it extremely interesting what is going on behind the scenes when we multitask.

      • http://www.andersgerdmar.com/ Anders Gerdmar

        My only problem is that I need a bunch of books for my work :/

  • http://www.liveyourwhy.net/ Terry Hadaway

    Multitasking is a more palatable way of saying, “I’m not paying attention!”

    • LeoWid

      haha, yep, a great way to put it Terry!

    • Ronald Britvec

      Very astute.

  • http://www.andersgerdmar.com/ Anders Gerdmar

    Honestly, I’m not able to listen to music while working, only of doing something really mundane… But thanks for the idea of changing place… I think you’re right, and I’ll test it!

    • http://twitter.com/ohlauren lauren

      I can’t either. I can leave the TV on for background noise (as long as I don’t get sucked into the story) or go somewhere public for a little chaos, but listening to music completely distracts me! (Except classical sometimes. Still not always. Depends on my mood/caffeine level!)

    • http://twitter.com/NikolicDragan Dragan Nikolic

      What kind of music did you try listening to?

      • http://twitter.com/slobodanmanic Slobodan Manic

        I know it’s not really music, but Birdsong Radio does wonders for me.

    • http://www.facebook.com/eidolon0 William Santee

      I can’t listen to music with words in English while I’m writing but there is plenty of great music I like that doesn’t fall into that category.

  • Surbhi

    I do multitasking bcoz I get bored with everything very soon.This definitely reduces my productivity.But smtimes multitasking is not an option bt a need.Say getting a phone call when u r solving a critical bug n at the same time ur boss pings u asking fr status report!Though most of the times multitasking can b avoided.
    Music improves productivity fr me coz it shuts down the outside word fr me.I can fully concentrate on my work.

  • http://twitter.com/danielschiller Daniel Schiller

    Jeepers, Leo. I wish I could try the single tab route. That makes a ton of sense. I see myself in the same cluster you describe above. Agreed, multitasking is really doing a lot of nothing. Thanks for sharing!

    • LeoWid

      Hi Daniel, glad it was insightful, give me a shout if I can help with anything else! :)

      • http://twitter.com/danielschiller Daniel Schiller

        Sure thing- thanks much!

  • http://twitter.com/NikolicDragan Dragan Nikolic

    We also multitask because new ideas sometimes spawn unintentionally. Some seem so brilliant you just have to leave leave everything else and do that instead.

    I think that’s the passionate part of our brains.

    • LeoWid

      Ah yes, really appreciate that comment Dragan!

      The fact that we naturally multitask definitely comes from our brain looking for new ideas and distraction, it that sense it is not all bad!

  • http://twitter.com/kcolbin Kaila Colbin

    Great article! I can’t listen to music with lyrics at all when I write, but if I’m doing graphic design work, the louder the better! I think having the music occupy the word part of my brain frees up the visual part to be less self-conscious or self-critical.

    • LeoWid

      Interesting Kalla, I think you are right, the lyrics part can be quite distracting, I have swapped to a lot of drum’n bass recently without lyrics and just more flat baselines, definitely helps me a lot to concentrate! :)

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1024509133 Ryoma Machida

        I love dnb too Leo. Check out my favorite Japanese best dmb DJ – DJ Aki! http://www.ustream.tv/user/DJAKi

        • http://joel.is/ Joel Gascoigne

          I’ll be listening to this tomorrow. Thanks @facebook-1024509133:disqus!

    • Deb

      The best online productive station for me is a classical one at http://www.veniceclassicradio.eu/ It usually gets me through a couple of hours productively.

    • http://twitter.com/jivygraphics J Ivy

      Thievery Corporation is my goto non-lyrics music, quiet yet relaxing – but not sleep inducing good combo

  • sam

    i only start listening to music once my mood drops. usually in the day between 2pm to 4pm, where it’s after lunch and things really start to slow down. generally i cannot listen to music while i work too. but somehow during that period of time i find that it boosts my mood and keeps me up. similar experiences anyone?

  • 1074087452

    When we sat down for just 10 minutes Winter
    Jackets every evening, to briefly walk
    through the tasks of the next day, everything changed in terms of
    productivity. The reason was that instead of just writing tasks down, I
    was forced to also think through the tasks and explain them to Joel. “I
    want to write this article on this type of content, because of this
    inspiration I had. I will Down Jacket structure it like this..” and so forth.The to
    do list I jotted down didn’t change, but it felt as if I had done half
    the work of it all in my head already. The next day, all I had to do is
    look at the task and get it done.

  • http://twitter.com/AntHuntley Anthony Huntley

    Great post Leo. Certainly makes sense. I imagine it would be quite hard to do – How do you balance researching something interesting you come across with staying focused on the task at hand? It’s so easy for one interesting thing to lead onto another, and then another.

    I also find that changing working location about half way through the day helps with focus. Otherwise I start to feel restless.

    I’m going to apply these principles to my own activities over the next few days, and see if I find a difference in productivity. If so, I’ll certainly try and turn it into a habbit =)

  • eniowo

    very informational…thank you; really needed this. :)

  • http://twitter.com/lazyNadja Nadja

    Before starting to klick in the internet, I write down why I started. If found what I lloked for, I just close the internet window and continue on my document or whatever I did before. it is only discipline!

    • LeoWid

      love that Nadja, really a great way to go about things! :)

  • http://twitter.com/TeboNdlovu Tebogo Gugu Ndlovu

    Much-needed article; I’ll definitely try out your suggestions. I “singletab browse” when I really need to get something done. It takes discipline because sometimes I have a thought and want to tweet it or suddenly think of something ‘important’ I forgot to do. But when I’m really pressed to get the work done, I’ll definitely focus on one tab. As for music, listening to music is something I do when I’m working in a busy environment. It somehow helps me shut out the surrounding noise. When alone in the room, complete silence is best for me, though.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1071127998 Jennifer L. Lopez

    This info needs to be passed onto employers, because many job descriptions demand multi-tasking. It is an unfortunate necessity for our lives at this point.

  • http://twitter.com/rgolwalkar Rohan Golwalkar

    Leo, as you use a journal at end of the day for next day tasks – in office i use Outlook calendar – i create a MIT(Most important task) list and schedule it – it pops up a reminder at scheduled time and i have a outline ready before i start my work.
    I thought sharing this might be helpful for audience using Outlook. Thanks again for the great post.

  • TheQuack

    Right on – a cafe hopper – I find this good too.
    I do wonder sometimes if I should muti-task more…
    c.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Ernest-Guadalupe/1687150397 John Ernest Guadalupe

    I better stop multitasking then. It is really shocking to learn that multitasking actually makes us a lot dumber though. Thanks for the awareness call! http://www.mitprof.com

  • http://www.jackiebledsoe.com/ jbledsoejr

    Great post and so true! Your 3rd point is very interesting…I have recently noticed how I feel more energized and focused when I find myself working in a new location or “work station”, whether at home or a coffee shop or my local gym’s wi-fi area. Thanks for posting this!

    I posted on my blog Do’s and Dont’s to reduce multi-tasking and increase focus. Here is the link: http://jackiebledsoe.com/5-dos-and-5-donts-to-help-you-focus-more-and-multi-task-less-while-accomplishing-more/

  • srvnGod

    As a college student the social networking and email was a huge distraction so I changed my homepage to the college website. Now the news, email, and social sites don’t draw me in.

  • http://twitter.com/LaliberteLaurie Laurie Laliberte

    I just reorganized my desktop and eliminated every tab except this one and my calendar. (The calendar is so I can jot down things I need to add to my “do list.”)

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/3WF2ZV2NYXMNXZEY3SXMA3T6KI Lefty

    Just a sec…..

    Oh, yeah, um… wait a minute, brb…

    OK, I see what you mean, hold on….

  • lmennuti

    Multitasking being bad is shocking news to me. It wasn’t that long ago I reading an article about how the human mind was capable of up to 4 simultaneous tasks maximum…Now the studies are showing DECREASED brain capability from doing multitasking??!! This is rather disheartening.

    So now it raises a few questions for me…If not multi-tasking, then how about serial single-tasking? In other words, concentrating on 1 thing at a time but for short amounts of time and then switching to the next single-task. I’d imagine that would require an allowance of some kind of transition time so the brain doesn’t create those so called ‘spotlights’, I wonder if the researchers looked into that and what amounts of time were required.

    • Angie

      Interesting! As a nurse, I thought we were always multi-tasking but actually we are engaged in serial single-tasking. Constantly going from one activity to another and then back again as the situation merits. Interesting way of looking at mult-tasking.

  • Catherine Reyes

    I add remainders at my to do list so I can remember what I should I do and after the remainder I add words like “prioritize” ..

    • Catherine Reyes

      besides Music inspire me always .. I don’t fallow the lyrics just the sounds

  • http://www.mccabemarketing.ca/ Maureen McCabe

    If you have ADHD (Attention Defecit Hyperactivity Disorder) music is very distracting. Your brain is listening to the music and lyrics and cannot concentrate on the matter at hand.

  • Gunner4life

    Disagree.. Each one is different.. Some can multi task with more ease and efficiency that others who need to be more focused on just one task. Yes there is a sense of achieving more but i don’t see much of a difference in the outcomes of those who multitask or those who are focused on just one task. Infact i believe people who multi task are happier individuals and more creative.

    Infact people who are focused on just one task are just saying “I’m a pea brain and my brain hasn’t fully developed”

  • http://haroldparis.fr/ Harold Paris

    Great article ! Love it ! Multitasking has never really been my thing, so… But I will implement your single browser tab strategy. Nice one ! Keep up the good work. ^^

  • http://twitter.com/asifmandozai Asif Khan Mandozai

    Great post. Always an evangelist of focused work for higher productivity gains and enabling ourselves to enter the state of flow. One great tool to look into as well would be the easy todo list by http://www.any.do
    A great plugin for the chrome browser which keeps my tasks at hand.

  • http://www.highballblog.com/ Constantin Gabor

    One tab is nice but I have to switch off the WiFi altogether if I wanna get something done. :-) Like writing posts.

    I also write posts when I don’t have an internet connection. Basically there is no other thing I can do with my laptop if there’s no internet – so I get my work done.
    Love the blog! (I enjoyed your interview on Entreproducer as well!)

  • NyashaC

    #3 is something I do often… A change is as good as a holiday (even if it’s for a few hours)!

  • http://blog.twelveintentions.com/ Jessica Brookman @ DREAMLY.com

    *Shamefully closes 56 browser tabs*

    • http://www.SubjectNoObject.com/ Krysten

      ditto

    • Denis Elistratov

      I read this article while replying to a tweet, discussing the new feature and commiting code. Gotta do something about sixty browser tabs.

    • Peter

      You can still have that 56 tabs opened. I sometimes open them a lot just to keep track of the tasks i have to do BUT i only go through them one by one. After i finish with one, i close it. I don’t just keep switching from one to another like nuts.

    • http://fedmich.com fedmich “Super freelancer”

      Guilty with this as well, I got lots of tabs open and got a lot of windows too.

      Although I do use some “read later” apps to help me prioritize what is to be worked on at the moment.

    • http://www.facebook.com/antonsoradoi Anton S

      heh… that and the fact that they are spread across 4 to 5 chrome profile windows….

    • http://twitter.com/abovetheclouds Jens Baltrusch

      Sorry, but that doesn’t beat my record for 352 open tabs when my browser crashed…

    • NightAngel79

      LOL!!

    • gumaflux

      I struggle to close down the tabs at times, like I would loose some precious thing – seems a bit like some weird loss aversion.. :)

  • http://twitter.com/LadyBizBiz LadyBizBiz

    Your fascinating post inspired me to write one in the same vein Leo. I talk about how the multitasking works for me, but the most interesting thread within your post is about changing locations and it’s one which strongly resonates with me.

    I find it refreshing to step outside of the usual desk-bound location to work in the garden or on the front deck, or even take a 5 mins drive to sit on the beach overlooking the ocean.
    I can’t listen to music while writing original material or business proposals, because I’m compelled to sing-along, but I often listen to music while checking in on Twitter, Facebook et al.
    This is one of my favourite posts from you Leo! ;o)
    ~ Rhianne

  • Victoria Hughes

    Very useful post. Thank you! I came here via Copyblogger, one of the few blogs I still subscribe to: and I understand why they listed you in The Lede.

  • Amandah

    After reading this article, I’ll limit myself to one web browser tab. Right now, I have six web browser tabs open. :)

    Multi-tasking becomes like an addiction that’s hard to kick. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve been told that multi-tasking is productive. I would object! I feel overwhelmed and burned out from multi-tasking. I do my best to take breaks throughout the day, but sometimes I need more of a permanent break, like a vacation.

  • http://catholiceconomist.wordpress.com/ Buster Adams

    I used to have plug-ins that would shut down certain websites during work hours that I often used to mutli-task, twitter, facebook, google reader, &c. I realized that 5 minutes of 9gag inbetween work sessions does not kill me, plus it lets me rest my brain for another stretch.

  • Katrina

    Multitasking has always been hard for me so it’s nice to know that there is nothing deficient in me and I can stop trying to do it al because it does leave me feeling drained and scattered.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=634338518 Laura England Miller

    Sharing with my teenagers, who insist they can do it all whilst still studying. Of course, I have some housecleaning of my own to do first: I kept this story open in a tab for 7 hours before I read it. Now closing all but one.

  • gcruchon

    I read your article. It was very interesting. I could not agree with you on everything, so I decided to read the sources your are mentioning.

    After reading them, I decided to write a small note, mostly for myself, but I can share it with you: http://gcruchon.tumblr.com/post/26768353457/three-facts-about-multitasking

    Feel free to give any comments about this.

  • http://www.Pipscovery.com/ Victor @Pipscovery

    I tried multitasking only to fail many times trying to keep up with many things. Now I use Pomodoro technique which makes you focus on 1 task for 25 mins at a time and then a 5 min break. The goal is have short spells of focus followed by short break.

    It is working out great so far for me.

    • http://www.compendium.com/ Frank Dale

      I am also a big fan of the Pomodoro technique. It is one of the best single tasking techniques available. The built-in feedback loop at the end of the day provides a way to rapidly improve productivity.

  • http://twitter.com/sundijo Sundi Jo

    Love this post. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://twitter.com/r_lewis Ricky Lewis

    Great article. Thanks guys. I work primarily with teens and see this a lot. They use the excuse they can handle multitasking and then get nothing done. I also see it in parents as I observe how they interact, or ignore, their kids as they check FB, texts, email whatever.

    We all need to single task better at work and in personal life. Thanks!

  • http://somewiseguy.com/ ThatGuyKC

    When it comes to multitasking online I am driven to distraction. I like the concept of 1 tab, but sometimes I need more than one open (compiling draft posts w/ images and links). However, I find that if I make a conscious effort to focus on one task at a time (social media, writing, emails, etc) that productivity spikes. Thank you for the tips and encouragement.

  • S.M.Karthick

    Great article! I wonder from now on are you going to be a single tasking person? Do you think you can be a single tasking person for ever??

    I faced similar problems like yours. Later i realized single tasking is the solution. i found amazing results out of it. But some days/months/years down the line i see myself as a multitasking person. By some means nothing to blame i became a multitasking person now. Your article refreshed me and my early days of multitasking. Going Singletasking..!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/mamoli Sandy Mamoli

    Great post! I have felt the evils of multi-tasking myself and at my work we have taken the evening planning routine one step further and have introduced personal Kanban boards which visualise your work on sticky notes and effectively minimise work in progress. Hard to explain but here’s a brief writeup with pictures: http://www.nomad8.com/page0/files/personal_kanban.php

  • Sagar

    Even though someone is multitasking (I am talking @ actual work and not listening/watching TV or eating), person is doing only that activity for those few continuous mins. If we consider listening/watching TV while doing something else like eating (assuming its not distracting), then what do we call driving? How do we do single tasking when we are on the road and driving which needs operating so many things in parallel?

    • S.M.Karthick

      Ha! Sagar. i assume you are so confused about what multitasking is.

      In simple multitasking is when you assign your brain to concentrate on multiple tasks at once.

      For eg: Say you have two tabs opened in your browser. One of the tab shows live stock values and the other tab is an Online IDE where you are working on your software bug which are struggling to fix for a week.

      Think of the above senario. While fixing you think about the stock values as a result you have not dedicated yourself to bug fixing. While looking at the Live stock values your brain thinks about the deadline to complete the bug fixture.
      This is multitasking.

      In your case while driving we concentrate on driving and we look around the road for the obstacles. while driving you assign your brain to drive the car i.e Ultimate goal of the brain is to keep your car on road. So it looks around to make sure he does the perfect job to keep the car on road and to keep you safe.

      Hope that answers yours question.

  • Mike Jones

    I only start listening to music once my mood drops. usually in the day
    between 2 pm to 4pm, where it is after lunch and things really start to
    slow down. generally i cannot listen to music while i work too. but
    somehow during that period of time i find that it boosts my mood and
    keeps me up. similar experiences anyone?

  • http://www.facebook.com/meg.renicker Meg Renicker

    I used to multitask, and everyone even the boss thought I was a whiz at it. Then, I fell into a huge crisis that caused a depression/PTSD/brain freeze, that would not move. Now, I have had to retrain myself to do things in a whole new way; fantacizing has become a problem, but when I set about to get things done I do one at a time till its where I need it to be (usually about 15 min is all I can tolerate) and move onto the next thing. I can now fold laundry and watch TV without getting confused, emotional, and exhausted. I fight proccrastination all the time in order to get anything accomplished and if I can’t do a summary of my day in my journal at night, it feels like a failure. I have never made the list at night, I’m going to try that to see if I can imporove my brain power.

  • http://twitter.com/TheaBredie Theodora Bredie

    I feel all multi-tasked out and I will go for your suggestions! Thank you Leo, very helpful.

  • ThiagoVieira

    Awesome aticle, Leo! How many tabs were open when you wrote this text? ;)

  • Guest

    Thank you for this article. “We are getting all these things done at once, and we feel incredibly efficient.” How enlightening. I’ve often struggled with organization in the workplace but never attributed it to the fact that I was multitasking since it was masked by a false sense of fulfillment. I do okay with to-do lists, but constant distractions at work (whether phones, guests or colleagues) often break my chain of concentration when I’m working on a single task and I find myself returning to different tasks every time, or suddenly remember that I have something else to do and moving on to that instead. Don’t get my started on tabs…

    I’m going to attempt this method – focusing on one task, and if broken by an outside factor, returning to the very same task until it’s completed. I look forward to find out if improvement in these two areas (concentrating on a single task and returning to the same task if interrupted) will prove better work productivity.

    I also enjoy the idea of assigning each task meaning, really delving into task’s purpose as opposed to looking at it as just another thing that needs to be done.

  • http://twitter.com/Noellementary Noelle Jefferson

    Thank
    you for this article. “We are getting all these things done at once,
    and we feel incredibly efficient.” How enlightening. I’ve often
    struggled with organization in the workplace but never attributed it to
    the fact that I was multitasking since it was masked by a false sense of
    fulfillment. I do okay with to-do lists, but constant distractions at
    work (whether phones, guests or colleagues) often break my chain of
    concentration when I’m working on a single task and I find myself
    returning to different tasks every time, or suddenly remember that I
    have something else to do and move on to that instead. Don’t get me
    started on tabs…

    I’m going to attempt this method – focusing on one task, and if
    broken by an outside factor, returning to the very same task until it’s
    completed. I look forward to finding out if improvement in these two areas
    (concentrating on a single task and returning to the same task if
    interrupted) will make for better work productivity.

  • Luis Sismeiro

    I always say “multitrashing” instead since people do a lot of sh** at the same time that isn’t productive.

  • Guest

    “Tab-hoarder” is one of many titles I have earned in my office. Guess it is time to change some habits. Great post!

  • Karenmca

    Lots of good commonsense there. I had begun to suspect that multitasking wasn’t good for me. You’ve proved it!

  • sahaguru

    Let the good habbits over take badhabbits, itmay a littledifficultto the brain which works, mind is a collecting devise, it learns and store. Bewfore learning the brain develops as a common sense, hence sense is the mind of your own learning.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kay.8888 Kayla A Roxas

    I am on my iPhone and there are no share or tweet buttons. Please add these above the comments so I don’t have to scroll all the way down to find it. Thanks :)

  • http://www.candleforex.com/ CandleForex

    Great article. We have known for years that being a single minded person is more productive than multi-taskers.

    This article literally proves the point.

  • http://www.your-lisbon-guide.com/ Mary H Goudie

    Love the bit about moving to a different location, gives the old adage “a change is as good as a rest” new meaning. Don’t know about the music though, when my husband is playing music I find myself being distracted by the lyrics, so not good for me. Thanks again for this article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/therealfeescott Feathers Dominique

    lol im guilty of the 100 browser tabs lol

  • http://www.resg.info/ Anton Stetner

    awesome post, we all just need to focus on one thing at a time and prioritize our time accordingly. Focus on the One Thing – http://youtu.be/9GXj7u4N010

  • http://www.ginacarr.com/ Gina Carr

    Great article. Thanks for sharing. Giving me the motivation – and some tools – to seriously give single tasking a try.

  • http://twitter.com/kacie_phillips Kacie Phillips

    This is amazing! I have added reduction of multi-tasking to my personal “happiness project.” I get utterly stressed from so many tasks, tabs, etc. I can never focus on what I am doing, because I am thinking and paying mind to too many other things at the SAME time. I love, love, love your perspective. So motivational! Wish me luck! ;)

  • Divetta

    For those who can’t listen to music while working: I have a hard time with music that has structure (pop, classical, etc.). But I find that music for meditating (chimes, singing bowls, wood flutes, etc.) works GREAT! My mind can’t latch onto any structure, so it remains relaxed and focused. I hope that helps someone.

  • Andrea

    Thank you for this. I should really try closing all my tabs and working on one. On changing locations, funny, but I always had a feeling that I am tired of my desk and should move my computer somewhere else, or even go to the library. But I discarded it because the hassle of packing everything, driving. etc. But I should really try this. Thank you.

  • Ryan

    I’m going to echo what a few others have said: music, yes. Lyrics, no. I’m a writer, and the no-lyrics ‘revelation’ helped me out tremendously. Having other words competing for your brain space is simply too taxing on your faculties.

  • http://twitter.com/shubooksandtax Shamese Shular

    This is a great article. We feel so much pressure to “get it done” we fall into this trap and it’s very stressful but hard to get out of at the same time.

  • Laura

    I confess, I read this while eating lunch. But it has inspired me to stop my multi-tasking habit once and for all.

  • http://twitter.com/hrheingold Howard Rheingold

    I guess fighter pilots don’t really exist. You know — those people who need to aviate, navigate, communicate, not get shot down, and try to shoot down the other guy, all at the same time. A lot of generalizations here. And no parent could possibly simultaneously cook dinner, answer the phone, and keep their toddler from sticking a fork in the electrical socket.

  • YouDontKnowWhatYouSay

    Garbage. People have multitasked before any written records of our history. “Multitasking” is a modern term used to describe computers. What people do naturally is concentrate on several things at once. Just shut up!

  • http://www.candleforex.com/ CandleForex

    While you make a good case, moving work location once a day is a little over the top. Its also impractical in most cases.

    The making of a list each day before starting work is a must for anyone who is serious about being productive.

    In my opinion anyone who has to implement all the suggetions by you, must have a severe case of ADD and or OCD or something like that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/moniqueekemper Mickii Kemper

    Cool article. Thank you for sharing. I truly enjoy this, because I feel as if I have been trying to do so much throughout the day (all at the same time of course, trying to be a good multi-tasker,) and at the end of the day I feel like I have accomplished nothing. My writing is not as polished, I end up missing deadlines because I have to keep revising, and I realize I would not need to revise endlessly if I was organized and wrote something of quality in the first place. And I will admit that yes I have been attempting to write or do other projects while doing laundry at the same time, and cleaning, and watch TV! This is great, and gives me a reason to slow down a tad and just focus on one thing at a time.

  • daniel

    only six tabs for me, but i all closed them now.
    I like the idea of the evening-list and I’ll try to implement it to our late-night meditatino routine. the work-place changing, since i cant move my desk, i’ll try to do by changign the chair (we have different chairs that all feel different in our offices) and the single tabbing – i hope i remember it – especially with outlook….

    I wish myself luck for this, and that I stick to it :)

  • http://twitter.com/ppetrovdotnet pip010

    If I read yet another anti-multitasking article Im gonna PUKE!
    not every brain can multitask and not for lot many task you need attention!
    also depends on what you mix!

  • disqus_1mvxxlwXJ7

    It took everything in me not to alt+tab half way through that article.

  • Brandon

    This is how I am starting to “singletask”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHfjvYzr-3g

    that accountability chart is an amazing way of keeping you focused… Thnx to sparringmind

    • Jesse Gilbride

      I just caught myself opening that youtube link in a new tab, hahaha.

  • Jesse Gilbride

    I think “multitasking” is just a buzzword/culture-thing of the corporate world, an attempt to increase efficiency (and therefor profits) in an unscientific and unstudied way, and only through the face palm of reality are we waking up to the pure *BS* of it. It essentially boils down to getting constantly distracted, and nobody likes that.

  • Olaru Paul

    I usually only have multiple tabs of the same opened (plus the music)
    That means sometimes I have Facebook (and the notifications I might open in multiple tabs but I definitely only pass through one at a time. After I finished the notifications I leave it open and only check it in “windows” allowed by the other sites, for example after reading a set of questions on ask.fm or a chapter from a wikipedia page (I am 16) or whatever…
    Typically each page I also read serially. I am also prevented from (browser) multitasking because of my aweful PC, but that’s a different story :P
    As for IM or Facebook Chat (which both happen rarely), I usually only talk to one person…
    Typically, there are >2 tabs (the music tab, *always* open, the active tab, the one I am reading/commenting on/working/… and various “dormant” tabs…) but I usually don’t multitask…

  • Lucas

    Wow! Really great post. :)

  • moltabocca

    I’ve always said this at interviews back in the late ’80s and early ’90s. They always asked me if I was a multi-tasker, as it was a trait that was in fad back then and all companies wanted a multi-tasker employee. I always answered with a resounding “No”, and added, “Do you want the job done, or do you want it done right?”. Of the four or five jobs I’ve held in my career (from filing clerk to financial controller over a 25 year period), I’ve always gotten the job at the first interview. :)

  • Deb

    This is amazing, thanks. I would so buy a book of yours about this!

  • Peter Martin

    no real multi-tasking can happen in the human brain. it’s all queued serially. this guy is wrong. Like, you CANNOT DRIVE AND TEXT AT THE SAME TIME.

  • Peter Martin

    no, you really cannot drive and text, for those who do, SHAME ON YOU. it’s worse than driving DRUNK. and I see it EVERY FREAKING DAY

  • Eli Bishop

    I somewhat disagree with this, studying while watching tv isn’t efficient, no. Sewing a button on a shirt while catching up with a show, means you are getting two things done at once. You just have to multitask efficiently. There are many things you can do on auto-pilot and get them both done, like listening to a podcast, while mowing the lawn, and picking up sticks along the way. Picking up sticks beforehand would mean you cross the same paths twice to do it.

    • Scott G

      The process of multitasking is one of degrees; walking behind a lawnmower is nearly an autonomic response, requiring very little mental exertion. Watching TV, sewing a button or listening to a podcast require little attention or thought. Your brains ability to switch from one lower brain function activity to another is quite good. However, try balancing your checkbook and writing the operation instructions for programming your TV remote. Two different, higher brain function tasks require so many other memories and calculations that your brain circuitry can’t keep switching from one task to the next. Are you multitasking simple activities? Not really. You’re just able to switch from one to the other very quickly and effortlessly.

  • Doodle

    Check out some of the research on how a brain with ADHD functions. Psychiatrist Daniel Amen states that the harder people with ADHD try to focus, the more difficult it is to think. There is low prefrontal cortex activity while the person is concentrating, something that feels bad.

  • Les

    Listening to Music while doing homework, such as reading for answers WILL result in diminished capacity to discern read information while your brain seeks to listen to the words coming through the headphones.

    • http://beautifulsynthesis.com Andrea

      Only if the music has lyrics.

  • Ana Maria Selvaggio

    As soon as I hit number 1, I bookmarked and closed the other 9 tabs I had open; a record setting low amount for me, I’ve crashed my browser more than once.

    I work from home, have ADD that I self-manage as well as a physical disability, and am a recovering packrat so there is a definite battle daily with clutter. I’ve broken old habits and gotten rid of more than half of everything so far – I have been a freelance artist for almost 30 years so you accumulate a lot of…”stuff”. I started limiting myself to what I could fit on an index card…then started cutting the index cards in half…then went to post-it-notes. I am well known for multitasking; sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

    The small notes, three tasks a day, and using Evernote has helped tremendously. “Whatever you do when you are procrastinating is probably what you should be doing for a living.” (me) and I find that when I write down the top three things for the day, I have a multitude of little things (phone calls, etc) running through my head. So I spend an hour, first thing, and clear out the little things that I haven’t even written down. It’s a mind trick, but it works. Then the rest of the day I can tackle the top three.

  • http://beautifulsynthesis.com Andrea

    I like your last item.

    You see, I have ADHD. I was already 29 when I was diagnosed. One thing I learned, years before I had any inkling something was “up” with my brain, is that music helps me think. Baroque music particularly – the best is any work by J.S. Bach.

    Anything else will distract me. If someone talks to me while I’m working, I’m distracted. If there’s a TV on, I’m distracted. If there’s flashing or animation on my work monitors, I’m distracted. But throw on “Toccata and Fugue in Dm” and suddenly my brain clears up and I can concentrate.

    For years I’ve described this as “music scratches the itch in my brain.”

  • gumaflux

    Great article Leo.

    The evening routine is a great practice, I tend to empty my head and then plan > adding a brain storming session with my co-founder sounds like a great next step.

    The description of multi-tasking seems scary similar to context switching and multi-threading :D

  • Max Bailey

    Nice article. I really agree with the point of moving locations. I can’t sit in one spot all day at work. I love moving around, even if it means moving into an unused conference room.

  • Christin Kardos

    I know this post is a bit dated but it’s got no expiration date as far as I can see! :) I tried this today and had *some* success. Today was a “team day” working with our managing partner and my colleague. Shifts in conversation led me to mult-tab. But I still tried my best to say with *just one* and even though sporadically foiled, I dare say I got just a hair more done today. Tomorrow I work at home alone… I will implement 1 tab mode and see what I can do then!

  • Neha

    Thanx a Lot for sharing this Article!

  • Zeeshan Parvez

    Was writing an article for TalentedSoul.com and came across this excellent piece. Will be making references to it.

    As you have correctly stated, Multitasking is horrible. I have been doing it for years and perhaps this is the reason why my memory has also suffered as some research as pointed out.

    Some research even suggests it is the cause of the rage epidemic we are witnessing in today’s society and that it leads to autism in children.

    A very dangerous trait. One which makes you feel satisfied but leaves you brain dead.

  • rajeshvaya

    Makes sense!

  • Brad

    yeah even just a piece of paper and pencil by the bed is a good idea, full stop . An immaculately tidy, singly-purposed environment is good too; don’t let too many other people traffic that, if possible. Going to have to try this 1 browser tab thing you speak of- sounds difficult tho :P

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  • Kinjal

    Exactly for this reason, we have http://www.teamgum.com browser extension tool for sharing web with teams, in most non-intrusive way. You don’t have to switch between work flow/tasks to connect to your teammates to share interesting article or discuss on idea or search past shared stuff. Your team is next to you always.

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  • motiguj

    is reading 30– comments or 30 different status.. one after other is good then??

  • sekar

    why brain does not deny self injury.?? but it deny too.. the answer is yes and no.. it warns us not to inflict injury on your body.. but why should it allows to accept tobacco or drugs or other substances which causes various diseases and cancer…??

  • steven2358