Why you should stop multi-tasking

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Multi-tasking isn’t the good idea it’s often cracked up to be. But there are some especially important reasons why writers shouldn’t multi-task…

I have a simple question I ask everyone I coach and it’s this: Do you let your computer collect your email for you automatically?

I’m always surprised when the majority — more than 90 percent — tell me yes. To me, it’s like admitting they talk in movie theatres after the show has started. Or that they text while driving.

Making matters worse, many of these same people allow their computers to emit a cheerful “ping” whenever an email arrives. But even if we don’t permit that noise, allowing our computers to collect our email and then taunt us with a little button showing how many messages we need to read is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea. Why? Because it distracts us.

And that distraction is profound. Even if you’re not actually checking your email. Glenn Wilson, former visiting professor of psychology at Gresham College, London, attaches some alarming numbers to it. His research has found that an email sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have 10 points to spare. That’s why I always collect my email manually.

To turn off automatic collection, go to your email then choose Preferences/General/Check for new messages. Select “manually.” Then use shift + command + N to collect your email. (Your computer may be slightly different than mine so check your Help function if this instruction doesn’t work for you.)

I’ve written before about the perils of multi-tasking, but I want to summarize the issue again today because it’s so important to writers.

Here are three key reasons why multi-tasking is such a bad idea:

  1. We make more mistakes: Experts agree that it’s essentially impossible for most people to multi-task. Instead, the best we can do is to switch rapidly between tasks. So, you answer your email, THEN you go back to writing your story. You talk to your boss, THEN you tidy your desk. You pick up the phone, THEN you check Facebook. Even if you try to do two tasks at once, your brain knows that’s impossible and picks one task to focus on. This dance (think of it like a waltz in which you have to spend some of your time moving backwards) requires constant decision-making. Which is going to get more attention: my email or the story I’m writing? But decision-making uses up a lot of our neural resources (remember my  column on willpower? ) Make more decisions and we lose our impulse control. This leads us to making truly bad decisions, otherwise known as mistakes. Why would anyone want to do that?
  1. We take longer to do things: Asking our brains to shift attention between activities causes our prefrontal cortex to burn up oxygenated glucose (sugar). What’s the trouble with that? Well, oxygenated glucose is the same fuel we need to focus. And with the rapid, continual shifting of tasks, our brains burn through this fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted. In turn, this exhaustion causes us to take longer to complete tasks. Think about how long it takes you to walk or run one mile. Now imagine walking/running it at the end of an exhausting day rather than first thing in the morning. Isn’t it likely you’d do it more slowly? That’s the same result you’ll achieve if you multi-task. You’ve depleted the nutrients in your brain. You don’t work so well.
  1. We increase our own stress: Multitasking increases the production of cortisol — a stress hormone. It also raises your adrenaline — the same hormone you encounter if you run into a lion on the savannah or see a car running a red light in the city. These two hormones make you feel tense, strained and over-stimulated. Not the way you want to feel when you need to write!

I began this column talking about email, but let me clarify a couple of important points: Oldsters, like me, use email. Younger people tend to prefer Instagram or texting. (An aside: Did you know that texting while walking leads to more accidents than texting while driving?)

Regardless, these are all the same distracting type of behaviours that give us a reward hormone and keep us from accomplishing our important work.  So remind yourself of this fact the next time you’re writing. Don’t be a plate spinner who’s trying to keep a half-dozen objects balanced on sticks.

The people I coach often tell me that the problem isn’t them, it’s their jobs. I’m sympathetic to this complaint,  but I have yet to find a boss who doesn’t want his or her employees to write better. Here’s what I suggest:

Declare a certain time of day to be your writing time. Make it at least 15 minutes and — if you can — no more than 60. Assign it to the morning because your willpower will be higher then. Let everyone — including your boss — know that you cannot answer email or the phone during this time. If you have a nanosecond of hesitation about this ask yourself: Is there anything so freaking urgent that it cannot wait for a mere 60 minutes? (If there is, give an admin assistant permission to interrupt you.) Then turn off your email and phone and start to write.

I predict both the quality and quantity of your writing will improve dramatically. You’ll also preserve 10 IQ points, which will be a benefit to society.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on July 28/15.

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