8 Startling Truths About Multitasking And Productivity

Multitasking And Productivity One of the more popular posts on this blog described how to save time writing blog posts. Perhaps I ought to have taken that to heart. Over the three days it took me to write this blog post, I found myself writing it:
  • While watching TV.
  • While babysitting three little kids.
  • While periodically checking Twitter.
  • With two side-by-side computer monitors, one running a news feed.
That would explain why it took me three days to write one post. What destroys your blog? Irregular posting. Sloppy writing. Unanswered comments and conversation. No new ideas. Split focus on everything but writing blog posts. And...multitasking. Content marketers are a busy lot, especially if they are going it alone. They are planning editorial calendars and content marketing strategies, managing social media, engaging and networking with others -- and, of course, writing blog posts. Multitasking seems like the perfect solution: get more done in a limited amount of time. Time is like a pie isn't it, after all? You can slice it up into as many pieces as you want and still have a whole pie. Except that a pie sliced into lots of tiny pieces is a mushy mess. It isn't much of a pie at all. Content marketers are true multitaskers. And that's not a good thing.

8 Startling Truths About Multitasking And Productivity via @JulieNeidlinger

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1. Multitasking is damaging your brain.

Let's start with the big one: your brain. Ever write your blog posts while watching TV? Sitting in on a conference call? Listening to the chatter in the open office? You're asking your brain to split its attention and it can't do that. Our brains are not capable of focusing on multiple tasks at once. They simply aren't. We think they are, but what's happening is your brain is jumping back and forth between the tasks, focusing briefly one at a time. And not only can our brains not make it happen, but they get damaged when we try to force them. Constant interruption (which is what multitasking is) brings on higher levels of stress. It's cognitive overload, and it dulls our brain and our reaction times. According to a study at the University of Sussex, constant multitasking actually damages your brain. They found out that people who regularly multitasking have lower brain density in the region of their brain responsible for empathy, cognitive control and emotional control. The good news is that you can fix that damage, the study found, if you take up activities that require concentration or make changes to the things distracting you. Work on one thing at a time, in a place where you can concentrate. So no. Don't multitask. Don't damage your brain. Because that's going to have an effect on your writing, obviously, as well as how you cope with the rest of the workload that content marketing requires.

2. Multitasking makes you less productive.

According to Dr. Susan Weinschenk, multitasking isn't even the right word. What really happens is task-switching, and it takes more time to switch tasks than stick with them until you finish. We think because we're good at switching from one task to another that that makes us good at multitasking. But having a great ability to lose focus isn't admirable. Studies have found that multitasking reduces your productivity by 40%. 40%! If you're convinced that multitasking makes you super-productive, you're super wrong. It just means you backtrack a lot, because every time you switch tasks, you have to repeat a bit to find out where you last left off. How many times have you had to re-read your blog post drafts because you can't remember what you wrote since your last attempt? multitasking Singular focus is how you get things done. Illustration by professional comic artist Brian Shearer.

3. Multitasking makes you dumb.

That sounds pretty harsh, but repeated exposure to multitasking hurts your ability to continue learning, and can even cause you to lose ground. A University of London study found that multitasking, when attempting to do cognitive tasks (of which writing is definitely one), lowered IQ scores as much as if study participants had used marijuana or stayed up all night. All of that multitasking is reducing your intelligence. It makes you lose the ability to know what is important and what isn't. And it's blinding you to the fact that you're not good at all of your attempts to juggle multiple tasks.

4. Multitasking makes you prone to cheat.

Cheating (intentional or not) happens when you make sloppy mistakes you otherwise would not make. According to Weinschenk, you "make more errors when you switch than if you do one task at a time. If the tasks are complex then these time and error penalties increase." Multitasking itself won't make you dishonest and turn you into a content crook, but being pressed for time (which is what multitasking ultimately leads to) makes you cut corners. And that's when sloppy things happen that can get you into trouble. Sloppy things like using images you don't have permission to use, or plagiarizing or lifting content a little too heavily.

5. Multitasking hides tools that are working against you.

Because we think multitasking is good or, at best, necessary, we use tools to help us be "productive" and get as much done as possible. Unfortunately, our tools aren't helping us. They are working against us. How? We don't realize how bad our tools are. The Faustian bargain we make innocently is one of exchanging work for busy-ness. Multitasking makes us feel very busy, and it often leaves us feeling like we've been productive and good workers, though strangely panicked at the sight of our to-do list with its scant completion rate. All of this fake work success hides the fact that our tools aren't very good. We pick them up and use them a bit and then pick up the next tool, and repeat--because this is what multitasking is. We swear the tools we have work for us, that they do the job. That we couldn't do it without them. But if we stopped multitasking and stuck with one thing from start to finish, we'd realize how our tools hampered us. We choose tools not meant for the job. One of the joys of working with CoSchedule is that it is specifically meant for the task of creating great content for your WordPress blog and social media. It's meant for content marketing. It isn't a generic task management platform that you can wrangle into being about content marketing. Tools with a specific purpose can help keep you from multitasking and distractions. Specific tools mean you aren't jumping between browser tabs to use tools, and accidentally checking Facebook between opening new tabs. They are built to flow in the direction your work would flow. None of this hopping stuff. Ad hoc tools tend to lead to multitasking because they force you to start and stop and jump around. multitasking Illustration by professional comic artist Brian Shearer.

6. Multitasking lowers the quality of your work.

When you multitask, your work suffers. Terribly. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research revealed that multitasking reduces worker performance, makes projects last longer (remember, it took me three days to write this post!), and creates that panic-inducing backlog because your to-do list isn't getting done. Peter Bregman wrote about his experience with multitasking in the Harvard Business Review. While sitting in on a conference call, Bregman decided to not waste any time at all and use that time to email a client. He sent the email. He realized he had forgotten the attachment. He sent another email, with an apology and the proper attachment. And then he had to send a third email explaining why that attachment was the wrong one and apologized while offering the correct attachment. It was at this point he realized that the conference call attendees (specifically, the Chair of the Board) were waiting for him to answer a question. Think you're awesome at your work because you're doing two things at once? Nope. You just make yourself look bad in front of others.

7. Multitasking reduces the ability to make connections.

Multitasking reduces your ability to remember things, and that's dangerous for content marketers. A great content marketer needs to be able to recall and connect the blogs, books, and articles they've read in ordered to create valuable and on-point content for their audience. Study after study has shown that when you multitask, you lose the ability to remember what you were doing, you are unable to learn as much, and you have difficulty putting what you're learning into new contexts. Imagine putting in a few hours of research for a blog post only to have been so distracted that when it comes time to write another post, you are unable to remember or recontextualize that same information. Multitasking while reading and researching doesn't work. It leaves you without the ability to recycle previous content and research, i.e. takes more work and time.

8. Multitasking audiences require more work from you.

There are some who say that this multitasking infection that has spread across the land is actually a good thing for content marketers. It means that the audience is multitasking, too, particularly with their mobile phones. People are digging and researching and consuming amounts of content that they might not have had they been more single-minded and focused with the task at hand. According to a 2012 Nielsen survey, 47% of tablet users over the age of 13 visit social networking sites while watching television. 27% look up information related to the advertising they see. 61% check their email while watching a program.

Audiences are multitaskers, consuming multiple pieces of content at once.

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In other words, when it comes to media and content, audiences are usually consuming at least two types of content at once. That is all wonderful, but only if you are meeting these readers where they are in all of the forms possible, and are able to grab their already split focus. That means being on email. Social. The usual suspects. And it also means content that a distracted reader can comprehend quickly, using:
  • Headlines, headings, and subheadings that relay information at a glance.
  • Clear graphics that aren't filler, but relay content.
  • White space.
  • Design that doesn't confuse with clutter.
  • Choosing colors that help your message along and attract your audience.
An audience that is multitasking means you have more opportunities, but it also means you are fighting to be noticed. People can only truly focus on one thing, and you want that to be your content. Don't grab them with the headline, with the first paragraph, with the graphics? They're clicking away to another distraction. It's a strange Catch-22, fighting against multitasking distraction by trying to be a distraction.

What Should You Do About It?

Much of the exhortation to blog and create content more regularly comes down to time management. That's why understanding the fallacy of multitasking is important to getting back on track. There are a few things you can do to combat the problem of multitasking:

1. Mix your activities correctly.  If you must do two things at once, then go about it with the right mix of complexity and simplicity. They key is to match high cognitive activities (like writing or anything that involves complex thinking and judgment), with physical tasks your brain's autopilot (the cerebellum) can handle.

Go for a walk and get your blog post outline organized in your head. Talk with a client while making a cup of tea. You get the idea. Look at your list and match the auto-pilot tasks with the cognitive ones. Read while listening to music without lyrics (lyrics ignite the language center of your brain used for reading...not good.)

Never pair multiple cognitive tasks together.

Never try to do two cognitive tasks at the same time. Won't work.

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2. Choose better tools. Find the best distraction-free writing tools you can so you can focus on writing and nothing else until you are done.

3. Break the habit. Multitasking is a terrible habit to get into. It becomes pure distraction without the pretense of even "tasking" after a while. Good writing habits take work to form.

4. Go with no. Learn to say "no" so that you can weed out the projects that bore you that drive you to Facebook and Candy Crush.

5. Turn things off. Turn off your phone so the Pavlovian beeps don't distract you. Turn off browser notifications. Turn off email notifications. You can attend to all of those things later. You don't need them now!

6. Don't be forced into meaningless interruptions. Maybe you do your work like I eat from my plate, one thing at a time. Refuse to split your time according to someone else's schedule, and finish one thing at a time.

As Bregman learned, a week without multitasking led him to some eye-opening realities. He reported making real progress on difficult projects. His stress levels dropped. He felt free from the feeling of juggling too many things. He stopped feeling rushed in the day. He never lost time or saw projects undfinished. And best of all? He lost patience for things that were a waste of his time. And that is the beginning of a very good place for all of us to be.
About the Author

Julie R. Neidlinger is a writer, artist, and pilot from North Dakota. She has been blogging since 2002 at her Lone Prairie blog, and works as a freelance writer and visual artist.