One Thing at a Time: Debunking Multitasking

Posted on October 17, 2017 · Posted in Analysis and Opinion, Impact and Symptoms, Individual Solutions
Focused archer

Dinotopia is one of the lovelier literary utopias out there. Introduced as a lavishly illustrated book by James Gurney, and later made into a TV miniseries, it tells of a fictional island where intelligent dinosaurs and humans coexist and collaborate in a peaceful society; the absurdity of the premise is offset by Gurney’s magnificent illustrations. And although this blog seldom deals with dinosaurs, real or fictional, there is a point in the book that is relevant here.

The code of Dinotopia

The citizens of Dinotopia obey the ancient “Code of Dinotopia”, which consists of 11 short commandments, such as “Give more, take less”; “Others first, self last”; “Observe, listen and learn”; and – which is where I come in – “Do one thing at a time”.

Let repeat this in its full glory:


Looks like the dinosaurs and humans on that island are way ahead of us 21st century folks.

A false hope

I doubt there has ever been a time when people strayed so far from the sensible concept that one should keep one’s attention on one task at a time. We live in an era dominated by information overload, and people conclude that the solution is to multitask, which they hope will get their queue of messages and tasks cleared faster. This is a totally false hope, and the results are devastating, because reality simply doesn’t work that way.

In fact, multitasking is not a solution, but has long since become a major part of the problem. It is important to understand why this is the case.

Why multitasking is bad for you

The naïve view against multitasking is captured by the old saying “If you chase two rabbits, you will catch neither one”. But this is not the issue with multitasking as experienced in the knowledge workplace. We can do two tasks “at the same time” – say, write a document and read an email – and both will get done… eventually. The problem is that doing them this way will consume much more time, result in inferior product, and impair your productivity, wellbeing and success.

The question of time has been the subject of numerous studies: there is no doubt that multitasking leads to a loss of between 20% and 40% in the cumulative time to complete the tasks. That is, if you try to do at the same time two tasks that would each take half an hour  in isolation, they will now take you 1:15 hours or more to complete.

Multitasking also distracts your thinking, keeping you in the state dubbed “Continuous Partial Attention” by the writer and hi-tech veteran Linda Stone. The result is reduced mental acuity, so that you are less creative, make more mistakes, and are, well, stupider. You can find pointers to relevant research in this article.

Being slower, dumber and more error prone is unlikely to appeal to your manager, and is not a good way to build your career! And of course, career aside, it will damage your sense of wellbeing and quality of life.

What is going on?

The reason multitasking doesn’t work for humans is that the brain is not built to do it. Evidently our evolutionary past did not include doing email while chasing animals to eat and avoiding those who would eat us instead. I’m sure our stone age ancestors were very focused on either task! Unlike Intel’s latest multi-core microprocessors, the brain simply doesn’t have the hardware to support multitasking. What we call multitasking is actually task-switching, interlacing short bits of the different tasks; and there is a serious overhead to that, since the brain needs time to reorient itself after each switch.

Incidentally, this is not just common sense; functional MRI studies have shown that attempting to do two different tasks – even if they involve different parts of the brain – reduces the brain activity of both tasks. Multitasking does not work in human brains.

The big surprise came a few years ago when Prof. Clifford Nass and his team at Stanford found that “heavy media multitaskers” – those kids that seem so adept at processing multiple inputs simultaneously – performed worse on a test of task-switching ability; in other words, the multitaskers are actually worse at multitasking than their more staid peers. This amazes because it hints at actual changes in the brain’s hardware that prolonged multitasking causes – and they are not good changes for mental ability. Just in case you still had doubts…

So what can you do about this?

The obvious conclusion is that you want to stop multitasking and start following the Code of Dinotopia commandment: just do one thing at a time! Unfortunately this is not easy. We are creatures of habit, and the past two decades have trained us to multitask as a matter of course. What’s worse, our colleagues and managers assume we multitask, and permit themselves to impinge on our attention and focus at all hours. What are we to do?

What are you to do? Obviously, if you have any willpower left, you go through a process of rehab. Multitasking may not be a physical addiction (although email and social media checking certainly are), but it requires powerful self-discipline to quit. You need to make some rules and stick to them. A sensible place to start would be assigning some part of your day – when you are most creative and focused – to working on major creative tasks, like authoring or developing content, without any interruptions. Try to isolate yourself physically if you can; turn off all alerts for incoming messages; and resolve not to check your email and social media during this time. Once you get into the habit, you’ll enjoy it a good deal – I do this in my mornings and I can attest to that.

Once you get started, extend the single-tasking habit to other times – control the urge to respond to the latest incoming task by dropping whatever you were doing. One thing at a time, until it is done!

Of course if you’re lucky, your employer may take action at the group level to help you out by deploying some program, like Quiet Time, to allow you focus time. And if you are a manger, you can do this for your group. 20–40% more productivity will look good on your record!

Are you aware of this problem in your own life? Are you making progress solving it?
Do share in the comments!


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