The Myth of Multitasking and the Reality of Distraction in the Digital Age / by Nima Tonekaboni

multitasking

Do you think you are distracted? Do all the social media sites, the range of apps, text messages, email and the products of digital world make us better or worse? Why do many of us suspect that our ability to stay laser-focused and our attention span have decreased due to our growing dependence to digital world products?

Let’s take a quick test and see how our brains work.

Attention is a limited-capacity resource. When you focused on the white T-shirts in the video, you filtered out the black T-shirts and most other things that were black including the gorilla. This is why most people don’t even see the gorilla! This is called attentional filter. Our brains evolved to focus on one thing at a time. 

Harnessing the power of technology (apps, social media, email, etc.) we are lead to believe we are better able to perform, get more jobs done and finish more daily tasks by using them at the same time. This assumes watching TV while studying, flipping through the social media news feeds while in a meeting/family reunion or replying to an email in the class make us more productive.

But in the book, The Organized Mind by Daniel L. Levitin offers a more detailed take and relates it to the digital age. He explains how our brains have the ability to process the information we take in at a cost. “Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get from a friend, is competing for resource in your brain with important things like whether to put your saving in stocks or bond, where you left your passport, or how best to reconcile with a close friend you just had an argument with.”

OK I am distracted all the time but how bad it can be? Isn’t it just the product of digital age?

What are the consequences of our tendencies towards self-interruptions when attempting to complete a task? “If interrupted at work, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task.” Says Gloria Mark a professor at the University of California

Also, her study shows that the more interruptions we get the more we intend to interrupt
ourselves during work. We self-interrupt every 3.5 minutes!

But how can we interrupt ourselves? 

This brings us to the subject of multitasking as a “skill”.  If someone asks you if you’re a good multitasker, what do you say?  Despite the above information coupled with specific studies, articles, and entire books explaining that multitasking (References):

(a) Doesn’t really exist and

(b) Attempts at it lower quality and productivity

The dominant cultural attitude (especially in business culture) might tempt you to
answer “yes, yes I am a good multitasker”.

But you’re not. Nobody is.

The word “multitasking” has been lifted from the digital world.  It was originally used describe the parallel processing abilities of computers but sometime in the early 2000s the term became an addition to our resumes. A declaration that we can do multiple tasks simultaneously (harnessing the magic of technology).  And do them well.

However, recent neuroscience research tells us that the brain doesn’t really do tasks simultaneously.  We just switch tasks quickly. Each time we move from hearing music to writing a text or talking to someone, there is a stop/start process that goes on in the brain and from what we know of distraction, there’s a metabolic cost involved.

Such findings should be kept in mind when being offered all the distractions in the digital age and as a result:

You are not a computer you are just attempting to act like you are!

So next time you’re studying while watching the new episode of Riverdale and responding to a comment on Facebook, you’re:

  1. Rapidly burning up the fuel (oxygenated glucose) that we need to stay focused. This leads to exhaustion.
  2. In the long-term you are inviting anxiety, aggressive and impulsive behaviours.
  3. Causing the brain to cry out for more dopamine, constituting a negative neural addiction.
  4. Reducing the effective IQ by 10 points.
  5. Suffering a decrease in performance.
  6. Reducing the ability to filter out irrelevant distractions.
  7. Sending the new information to the wrong part of the brain which means easily forgetting them.
 “Now you are either On and you’re distracted all the time, or you’re Off and wondering if you’re missing something important. In other words: Distracted or FOMO. We need to restore Choice: We want a relationship with technology that gives us back choice.” Tristan Harris
focused

What can be done? Can I remain focused with all internal and external distractions?

It wouldn’t be one of our proudest moments when looking back at our life or speaking to our children and observing that we’ve sent extra thousand messages and emails or checked our social media hundreds of times during work.

This is the choice we make. We need to think seriously about this and:

  1. Dedicate a special time of day to work with the phone turned off, email and browser shut down: You can download the stayfocused chrome extension.
  2. Dedicate a special place to work with your desk ready to serve you.
  3. During your productivity time, make a commitment not to respond to anything.
  4. Build up the attitude that the thing you’re doing now is the most important and productive thing you can do and try to keep your attention from running away.
  5. Try the mind clearing technique:

Write down everything that can distract you: Set a separate piece of paper and jot down the extra daily information like shopping lists, house chores etc. on index cards or on a file on our smart phones, and tell yourself that you will think about that later.  Externalizing the memory this way makes the brain rest better and burn less calories

       6.  Exercise weekly. It has been shown that it will enhance memory by increasing the blood                 flow to the brain and enhancing the immune system.

        7. Take brakes: nature brakes (jogging/walking), listening to music, perform an art or a                       combination of those during the day allows the brain to rest.

        8.Practicing mindfulness and meditation assist us in enjoying the power of living in the                      present moment.

Keep in mind that Multitasking is the enemy of a focused attentional system and we are not performing better if we are practicing to get better at it.

AND

Be aware that a switch in focus is a distraction.  Give yourself a time limit to focus on just one task and complete it better and faster with ultimately utilizing less energy.

References:

  1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/creativity-without-borders/201405/the-myth-multitasking 
  2. The distracted mind
  3. The organized mind  
  4. Professor Glenn Wilson study 
  5. Computers in human behavior
  6. Ophir, Nass and Wagner study
  7. Professor Russ Poldrack study
  8. Tristan Harris 
  9. Gloria Mark 
  10. Larry Rosen 
  11. Mindfulness