“Multitasking is the opportunity to screw up more than one thing at a time.”—Anonymous
There is no doubt in my mind that multitasking, that seemingly harmless ability to juggle multiple distractions and projects at once, is secretly waging war against your life and holds the potential to ruin your career in the process.
Think I’m being harsh? Keep reading and then decide what’s really at stake for you.
In a world that increasingly values depth and expertise, multitasking is keeping too many people from building up the levels of focus and concentration needed to make the breakthroughs that society and their careers require. Given how important our work is to our livelihoods and happiness, this is a crucial issue.
It’s not just that multitasking is a significant drag on productivity (up to a 40 percent productivity hit for someone juggling multiple complex problems). It’s that the world, and many of the products and services we love, are being designed to keep us from turning our attention to the things that matter.
This post is intended to lay out what’s at stake when it comes to multitasking, why you should care, and what to do about it.
But first, let’s look at an outlier.
The Curious Case of Elon Musk
Reading the detailed account of his life thus far, authored by Ashlee Vance, one gets the sense that Musk is a master multi-tasker, able to simultaneously work on dozens of hard technical, business, people and family oriented problems (he’s been divorced three times and has five kids) all at once. 
While Elon might seem like a multitasking machine on the surface, the majority of humans should understand that what he is doing now, as a CEO of several companies, is surely not what he did to get to this point. The bookdetails how he would devour books and ponder intensely over complex problems from a young age. He seems to have a mastery over avionics, physics, software engineering and many other fields that would only come from an ability to dig in an learn concepts and then apply them over an extended period of time.
Further, the demands of CEO are unique from the requirements of most of us doing knowledge-oriented work. A CEO is unique in that their most optimal use is as a “decider,” being able to shift intense focus from one problem to another while supporting their staff in taking decisive action, and being an arbiter as needed. There is a reason “manage by wandering around” is a term thrown around in corporations. That means being visible and reachable. It’s part of the job. 
However, even in this case, the need to dwell on a particular problem for an extended time (e.g. to set the Vision for a company or handle a restructuring) is also required for a CEO. From the book, it seems that Musk does engage in activity devoted to what Cal Newport would call “deep work”that is not interrupt-driven or requiring an immediate decision. Musk just does it when most of us are sleeping or watching Netflix (my assumption, I have no proof). 
My guess is that while Elon Musk might be multitasking a lot during his work days, he’s surely spending a ton of time diving deep into specific problems late at night and on the weekends. I’d love to know the answer to that assumption. For now, based on reading Vance’s book and various articles about Musk, I’m assuming I’m right!
Focus Is Your Most Valuable Skill
Where does your extraordinary ability to concentrate for extended periods of time come from? How do you build up the capacity to make quick and correct decisions in times of stress? Why are some people able to create lasting works of art or otherwise make their little dent in the universe — while the rest of left hoping for more?
My belief is that all of these capacities come first from training and improving your ability to focus. Multitasking, as the majority of us, do it — hopping from email to Facebook to PowerPoint to the kitchen for a drink and back to PowerPoint — is the antithesis of focus.
I believe that prolonged multitasking and drowning in a sea of information and projects, and the distraction it creates, is not only driving you crazy and shooting up your stress levels, it is also ruining your career and compromising your happiness. 
This rest of this post will explain why you should care about this, share some practical strategies for helping you cope with distraction, and I hope, inspire you to build up your capacity to focus.
Like any learned skill, your ability to single-task and focus can be trained.
What It Takes To Do Great Work
I spent many years working at my last company, Microsoft, including many years as part of the Microsoft Office division. As part of my role, we spent countless hours studying and understanding how people do their work and the role technology could play in helping them create more, do more and be better in their jobs.
As part of my job, we dove deep into the growing role of “Knowledge Workers” a phrased coined by Peter Drucker over 50 years ago and broadly applied to the set of workers that are using information and knowledge to create products and services. This type work contrasts with the industrial age of employees performing a repetitive task as part of a machine.
Knowledge work is creative and goes beyond the basic.
“The most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution, whether business or non-business, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.”—Peter Drucker
In a knowledge worker economy, which is what we are in right now, it’s no longer sufficient to be excellent at routine or basic tasks. Those are the type of things (e.g. data entry, basic analysis, etc.) that are easily automated through software or process improvement.
As technology advances and software eats the world, the way knowledge workers, and the businesses they work for, stay relevant is through the creation of more interesting, useful and innovative products and services. The “water line” for being relevant and remarkable in a knowledge-economy is always rising. This can be both exciting (as new opportunities arise) and frightening (if you aren’t building new skills and depth as your job becomes redundant).
Staying relevant as a knowledge worker takes the depths of knowledge, insight, creativity, and effort. Dare I say, it also takes time and the ability to focus and concentrate.
If your hourly routine involves multitasking across three completely different projects; checking five social networks, two email accounts, and three messaging services; your capacity to concentrate and create remarkable work will be next to impossible (in my opinion and direct experience!).
Don’t look to people like Elon Musk (or Jack Dorsey, who is the CEO of both Twitter and Square) and use your assumptions of how they work as an excuse to multi-task and juggle projects. How they work is unique to them. Furthermore, it’s also likely that what you don’t notice is the countless hours of dedicated practice, concentration, and focus that got them to where they are at.
Besides, Elon and Jack are probably still spending more time doing focused knowledge work that most of us in spite of their other demands! At least, I hope they are. If they aren’t, their companies will suffer down the road.
We Are Built For Single-Tasking
Most trained knowledge workers can only do one thing at a time, at a high level. The interesting result of laboratory studies is that even college students, who by their age and experience in technology use should be among the most efficient multitaskers, are often unable to perform two complex tasks concurrently while maintaining reasonable accuracy.
For example, try writing a detailed essay while paying attention to a podcast with the goal to listen and learn from it. Notice what happens in your mind. How long does it take to complete the essay? What is the quality of your work? How many errors are you making? How much effort are you putting in? What is your stress level? Are you experiencing any degree of flow?
Even if your mind is capable of thinking of multiple ideas in a similar time-frame, we are only able to devote our full mental energy to one creative thing at a time. I say “creative” explicitly, because we are able to walk and chew gum simultaneously. However, these tasks are not the sort of things that will get you ahead in the knowledge economy.
You might say that it’s ludicrous to think that multitasking is doing two or more things simultaneous. “Who the hell does that?!!” you might say. “I just switch tasks periodically, that’s totally different!”.
Unfortunately, whether you work on projects simultaneously or repeatedly change between then, you will still suffer from what, in a 2009 research paper, University of Minnesota business professor Sophie Leroy calls “attention residue.” Leroy explains that every time a brain shifts its attention from one task to another, part of its energy is still processing the first task.
To be relevant, you need to go beyond the expected. This takes effort, concentration and creativity. You are built for single-tasking and can only do one piece of detailed creative work at once. You might choose to hop around across various projects over a certain span of time (an hour, a day, a week, etc.). However, if you are switching among different projects too often, or worse, trying to think simultaneously about multiple projects at once, you will be massively hurting your productivity.
Let’s look at this in more depth next…
Multitasking Kills Productivity
Putting it bluntly, Psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell has gone so far as to describe multitasking as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one.” 
In psychology, there is a phenomenon called “continuous partial attention” that occurs when multiple things are happening, but none of the events are studied in-depth. This is your brain’s way of coping with too much information by selectively deleting and focusing on specific things to make sense of an environment inundated with inputs.
A common example of this inattention to detail due to multitasking is apparent when people talk on cellphones while driving. One study found that having an accident is four times more likely when using a cell phone while driving. Even scarier, a 2006 study showed that drivers talking on cell phones were more involved in rear-end collisions and sped up slower than intoxicated drivers.
Don’t text or talk and drive folks!
If this happens when doing something as routine as driving, just imagine what happens when you bounce around between more complex and creative tasks.
Think quickly checking your email won’t do any harm? A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that interruptions as brief as two to three seconds — which is to say, less than the amount of time it would take you to toggle from this article to your email and back again — were enough to double the number of errors participants made in an assigned task.
The overall impact of multitasking is tough to quantify, and at first might, the productivity hit of individual diversions might seem small. However, the research shows a different outcome.
According to a summary of multitasking research citing experiments from Dr. David Meyer and his colleagues) at the University of Michigan:
Although switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to significant amounts when people repeatedly switch back and forth between tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error. Meyer has said that even short mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.
In Dr. Meyer’s own words:
“People in a work setting,” says Meyer, “who are banging away on word processors at the same time they have to answer phones and talk to their co-workers or bosses — they’re doing switches all the time. Not being able to concentrate for, say, tens of minutes at a time, may mean it’s costing a company as much as 20 to 40 percent” in terms of potential efficiency lost, or the “time cost” of switching, as these researchers call it.
“In effect,” says Meyer, “you’ve got writer’s block briefly as you go from one task to another. You’ve got to (a) want to switch tasks, you’ve got to (b) make the switch and then you’ve got to © get warmed back up on what you’re doing.”
Did you catch that?
Multitasking is costing you, and your business, up to 40 percent in lost productivity!
The science and my own personal experience show that I do my best work when I have one clear thing that I can devote my time to at once, ideally for an entire day. At a minimum for 90 minutes time blocks.
If I have multiple long-term projects to work on, I can still get them done, but one is going to get the short end of the stick (which might be OK in a pinch, depending on the project). If both projects require my full attention, I’m better off eliminating one of them or deferring it until I can devote my entire focus to it. Worst case, I’ll dedicate as large a block of time as possible to each project, to minimize the pain of context switching.
While experts like Dr. Meyer do concede that you can train yourself to multitask better over time, they also conclude that there is a limit to how well it can be done and therefore, advise people to avoid multitasking if at all possible. There is also a difference between training yourself to juggle simple tasks vs. complex and creative ones. The former can be trained. The later is much more challenging (if not impossible).
Problem: The World Wants To Steal Your Attention
In spite of the fact that we are living in a world where your ability to concentrate and do outstanding knowledge work is critical to your success on the job, the world is at the same time conspiring to pull you away from the very things you should be dedicating time to.
I’m a huge fan of technology, but this is one place where companies are plotting against you, intentionally or not. Many industries survival depend on capturing as much of your attention as possible. I’m not just talking about print media and TV. Even companies like Google, whose motto is “do no evil,” derives the majority of its profits (virtually all in fact) through advertising. The more time you spend on its properties and the more content you search for, the more money they make.
Google has a vested interest in capturing more of your time. Unless your job is to search for and consume content online, this is a problem.
Likewise, even companies like Microsoft (my alma mater) rely on making their software more relevant and “useful” to you. New applications are invented to create reasons to upgrade and renew your hardware and software. This often means, particularly for communications software like email and messaging, the invention of easier means for people to interrupt each other. Companies use the buzzword “collaboration” instead of “interruption” but the later is often what the tools are enabling. Hot collaboration software companies like Slack are continuing the trend of never-ending disruption under the guise of productivity.
In the good-ole-days, you could at least hop on a plane or visit a coffee shop to escape the distraction of technology, but smartphones and ubiquitous wi-fi are making that a tough act to pull off.
The world is screaming for your attention, but your success (and I posit, your happiness and your health) depend on your ability to ignore these pulls and instead, concentrate on doing your work.
I’m not saying technologists have mal-intent. They are innovating as they should. The onus is on us, the consumers, to build up the practices and structures to help us maintain focus and sanity in a world that is clamoring for our attention. Perhaps a new breed of startups, fueled by the Time Well Spent movement of Tristan Harris, will help us combat this problem.
Next, I’ll share some of my favorite methods for eliminating distraction and improving focus. It’s all about breaking your multitasking habit.
5 Ways to Break Your Multitasking Habit
These are things I personally do, to help me break my multitasking habit and cultivate deeper focus. If you have other ideas, please offer them in the comments to this post. I would love to hear them.
Meditation is the psychic equivalent of swinging kettlebells for the mind.
It makes you more robust intellectually, and closes the gap between what you know needs to happen deep down in your heart, and what actually gets done.
The benefits of meditation are too widespread to ignore. Even better, you don’t need any special equipment or tools to get started. All you need is a quiet space and a few minutes of time.
A consistent meditation practice will support your cultivation of two things:
This means that with practice you will begin to notice more of what is happening in your world (expanded awareness) while at the same time improving your capacity to be non-attached to those very things (increased objectivity).
A practitioner of meditation will not necessarily feel less temptation or distraction during the rest of life, however, they will begin to build up a capacity to choose whether to follow the temptation towards distraction or just allow it to pass by.
If you ever notice a seemingly invisible force compelling you to check your phone for messages, a force that is so sinister and stealth that you don’t even see you are responding to it’s every whim — this is exactly the type of energy that meditation will make you aware of. You may then choose to engage with it, or not.
In my experience, the more you meditate, the easier it is to say “NO!” to distraction and say “YES” to deep and meaningful experiences.
2. Actively Concentrate
This is one of my favorite practices, and in fact, I applied it recently during a 3-hour power hike on the Colorado Trail with my dog.
With active concentration (I made the name up, not sure what else to call it), you pick a particular problem or topic that matters to you. This might be a project you are working on at work or something else altogether. It’s a riff on moving meditation practices that have been part of Buddhist traditions for ages.
While going on a walk, slow jog, swim or otherwise engaging in a low-intensity activity, focus on your topic for the duration of the exercise. Think about the problem in new ways. Imagine different scenarios. Imagine the problem was an intricate and fascinating rock you were turning over and inspecting with an imaginary microscope in your mind. Mull over the problem well, then, ignore the problem and come back to it in a few minutes.
See what pops.
For example, I outlined this entire blog post in my mind during my recent hike, including the examples and some potential statistics I wanted to include. When I returned home, I then wrote an outline (using pen and paper) and typed everything out (using the Byword app on my Macbook Pro), looked up a few stats, and published to my blog, Medium.com, and LinkedIn.
Active concentration works for any period of time, though I find it extremely useful for extended periods (2+ hours) when I can mull problems over and get a workout at the same time. The key thing is to keep the intensity of the exercise relatively low. 
3. Schedule Distractions
There are some people, like Cal, who choose to be completely disconnected from Social Media, for the sake of utilizing that time for more meaningful work. I appreciate the choice Cal and other anti-social-networkers make.
However, I’m not one of those people.
I want to stay connected to the world, and to my family members and friends who use social media, messaging and email to keep in touch. My business, as an entrepreneur, also depends on my capacity to use media to connect with current and new clients. I prefer to train my brain to use these tools for my benefit, instead of removing them wholesale from my life.
Besides, in 10 years, when my nieces and nephew are older and embracing technology, I don’t want to seem like a Luddite!
A highly efficient method for dealing with distracting things is to create dedicated time to be distracted. For example, you might decide to check your email at 10 am and 5 pm every day instead of constantly throughout the day.
One thing I do is only “mindlessly browse” my social networks at certain times of the day for 15 or 30 minute time chunks. During these times I can go wild and do whatever I want on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other sites. The rest of the time, I ignore them or only check them when I have an explicit purpose(e.g. to post an article to Medium or respond to a message on LinkedIn).
I also have removed all my social media apps and disabled all notifications (including email) on my phone.
No one is going to die if I don’t check Facebook every day, so I don’t. The world will keep turning if I don’t hit inbox zero multiple times a day, so I don’t worry about it.
4. Capture Your Monkey Mind
I’ve recently gotten in the habit of writing morning pages. This practice, popularized by creative genius Julia Cameron, involves writing three stream of consciousness pages first thing in the morning, with pen and paper. 
This practice captures your monkey mind before it has a chance to play havoc with your day. It also turns on your inner creativity and productivity before the world deluges you with inputs and useless information.
I always end my morning pages routine feeling more focused and capable of doing great work. Even better, regardless of whether or not I do anything else worthwhile during the day, I have an early “win” to feel good about!
I modify my morning page practice by setting my goal even lower, instead of writing three pages, I aim to write just a single page. Often, when I make it to the end of the first page of my legal pad, the ideas are flowing strong and I end up cruising through 2–3 more pages. I don’t think about what I want to write about ahead of time. I just start moving my pen, often beginning the exercise with “I don’t know what to write about, so I’m moving my pen across the page and seeing what happens…”
Something always comes out. Most of the time it’s interesting enough to put up on my blog with minimal edits.
5. Protect Your Quality Time
When do you do your best knowledge work?
For me, it’s in the morning, between 5:00–8:00am. While I don’t always get up at 5am, I’m certainly up before 6 am, and writing or thinking about something meaningful by 6:30.
I take the time before 8 am very seriously. I don’t schedule client meetings before 8am. I don’t turn on the TV before 8am. I don’t play music before 8am. I sit around, drink a hot beverage (tea or coffee), write, plan my day, write some more, let the dog out, write some more, stare out the window, write some more. Sometimes I write less and think more. It depends on the day.
My writing and thinking always revolves around my vocation, which is about helping people build careers and lives they can be proud of. Usually I have a particular topic I’m working through, inspired by a recent conversation I’ve had with a client.
Multitasking is a myth.
At best, it distracts you from the work that really needs your attention. At worst, the endless pull of technology, distraction and unimportant projects will cause irreparable damage to a career and lifestyle that could have been achieved with focus on the most important things.
What’s the antidote?
Commit to breaking your multitasking habit.
Then, cultivate a new habit of focus.
While our bodies are brains are amazingly capable of doing many things, why not commit to focusing the tremendous resources you have within towards the pursuit of something remarkable and worthy of your precious time on this planet?
If you have the courage to commit to a lifestyle of concentration and focus for the long-term, I’m willing to bet you will be less stressed, happier and more proud of the little dent you’ll be making in this great big universe we are all living in. Other smart people, like Barry, agree.
Facebook, Twitter, email, Netflix, the news and whatever else is robbing you of your attention will be there tomorrow.
For today, focus on what really matters.