There's No Such Thing As Multitasking

The greatest myth about multitasking... is that it even exists. Here's why, and how you can break out of the trap.
5
minute read
Productivity
May 6, 2020

Multitasking Is A Myth

On a winter morning in 2009, Captain Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger did the impossible.

When Flight 1549 hit a flock of birds, the fate of that plane and the souls on board were sealed. Their journey would soon end imminently, violently, in ice cold water.

With limited time to act in a situation nobody had ever trained for, the cockpit became a din of alarms and gongs and radio chatter.

Calmly, carefully, he stayed in control. He eventually steered the plane on a route that allowed them to ditch in the Hudson river and evacuate everyone to safety.

There are many ways it could have gone much worse. But, luckily, Sully had huge experience, a good copilot and a wonderful crew. It's hard to imagine a better outcome for how it turned out.

But that’s not the whole story.

In an interview he gave several years after the incident, Sully says this interesting thing:

'I knew that multitasking is a myth. That when we think we're multitasking, what we are in fact doing is switching rapidly between tasks, not doing either of them well. And so I chose not to try to do too much.'

In the film made about the Flight 1549, you catch glimpses of this. He doesn't respond to all of the radio messages. He is sparing with his words. He chooses - of course - to focus on flying the plane.

All 155 lives were saved that day.

If You’re Gonna Fly The Plane, Fly The Damn Plane

There's a phrase so common among pilots that it's cliche.

'Aviate, navigate, communicate.'

It is not a list of what they should be doing all the time all at once. Far from it: it's a phrase that dictates the order of their priorities.

First, fly the plane. To survive, you need to keep that sucker in the air. Otherwise it's pretty hard to do anything else.

Then - and only then - figure out where you're going. Where's the airport? Where's the storm cell? Where's the mountain range?

Finally, start communicating. Tell air traffic control what your intentions are. Tell your crew. If there's time, tell the passengers.

If you were in a plane that hit birds, what you would want your pilots to do first?

What Happens To Our Brains When We Shift Tasks

Like flying a plane, it also seems pretty obvious that it's important to focus on certain things in life. Often, to the detriment of the things we choose to ignore.

But here's the problem: it's all too easy to stray off course.

We get lost in our thoughts about what we should be doing. We get pulled into our emails or out text messages. We lose focus. We stray. We tread water.

Before too long, we've lost the plot entirely. And all because we didn't fly the damn plane.

The biggest culprit in all of this is the multitasking myth. It goes like this: you can do more, by doing more things at once.

But the problem is that we don't ever do two things at once. We might think we do, but really we're shifting rapidly between the two. 

Each time we shift, we use energy.

The more shifting between tasks we do, the more energy we use for just... shifting. We are left with less energy for actually doing something, anything, important or not.

Does This Sound Like You?

Let's say you're trying to write something. Let's say it's important. It requires your full attention to do it justice. Writing this thing will help you get where you need to go. It's vital that you get it done.

So, you sit down at your desk. You open your laptop. You pour a fresh, hot coffee from the pot you made. You crack your knuckles. You begin.

For a time, it feels incredible. The words are flowing, the writing is effortless.

The clock hits 9am and an email pings into your inbox. You fight the urge to look, but the sound triggers a powerful response in you. You itch to take a peek. Finally, you cave. You scan the first few lines - it's not important. It's junk.

As you go to close the window, you spot that email from yesterday. The one with the bad news, and the difficult response you still need to make. You think about it for a few seconds... and decide to handle it later.

You return to what you were writing, but it's gone. Not the words you've written of course, but your train of thought.

How much effort will it take to get it back?

What To Do Instead

1. Fly Your Plane

If you have too many priorities, you have none. Decide what matters most, and do that first before anything else. This article assumes you have priorities; if you don't have any - lucky you I guess.

2. Wake Early, Work Early

Unless you're Hunter S Thompson, your best hours are probably in the morning. This is also the time of least distraction - people aren't texting or emailing as much and you can easily get away with having your phone turned off and your emails unopened.

3. Remove Distraction

If you can, turn your phone off when you go to bed. Buy a cheap alarm clock if you need something to wake you up. When you wake up, don't turn your phone on - go straight to working on whatever it is you decided to do today. If you're on a computer, don't open your email until at least midday.

4. Work In A Quiet Space

Ambient noise can be severely distracting, whether at home or the office. Do your best to find a quiet spot to work. You might also invest in a pair of noise cancelling headphones - I use these headphones by Bose.

5. Take Things One At A Time

Rather than trying to achieve lots of small tasks in a day, focus on doing one big thing. Doing one big thing means you can finish the day with the satisfaction of having completed it, and you'll likely have done other things along the way anyway.

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