Multitasking Is A Myth. Here's why

When was the last time you were multitasking and felt productive but a little tensed? Always? There is a reason for it and we are just going to discuss that. But first...

All the things mentioned here are my personal views, please take the stuff which makes sense to you. I do read books and like to observe stuff which is the source of these opinions.

There is nothing like true multitasking

First of all, there is nothing like true multitasking. We are just juggling between a bunch of tasks where one comes in hand at one moment while the other stays in the air. There is only enough hand space to hold.

The same thing happens with the brain too. Our brain is an amazing machine being capable of processing quadrillions of data within an instance of a sec. The only limitation is the working memory.

Now, what is working memory?

What happens when you try to remember a contact number or a grocery list? You (sometimes) forget a few of them. This happens because our working memory is limited and the space is only large enough to hold around 7 items at any particular moment (on an average). You can also think it like a RAM of a computer, really fast memory but smaller in size.

Secret: You can train your brain to hold more items and increase your working memory. In fact, Suresh Kumar Sharma from India holds the world record of remembering 70030 digits of pi in 17 hr 14 min. 😵

So, one thing is sure that our working memory is limited and while we can do anything with it, doing everything all at once is certainly not possible.

Let's dig some more into this.
Do you usually watch tv while browsing social media on your phone? What happens when you do that?
Your attention span is consumed by the shiny screen in your hand and you barely notice what's happening on the television.

Because our attention span is small, our brain chooses to withdraw the attention from the tv and divert it fully to the more appealing mobile phone. (thanks to the engineers at Facebook for making it more appealing and get us hooked 24x7 🙂). Let's see another example.

How many times has it happened that you're having your coffee while trying to solve a difficult bug at work and suddenly you notice that your coffee has turned cold? What happened?

Drinking a coffee doesn't even require much focus but your focus indeed shifted to the more important task at hand. This is the cost of multitasking. (unless you like coffee cold).

Secret: Coffee turned cold doesn't taste good.

The example I just gave is simply to make you recognize that our "Attention span" is small and we can only fit a certain amount of stuff at a time. When the brain feels the need to hold more data into attention span, it withdraws the things that are less important.

Now let's understand what happens when you actually do multitask

Consider this scenario, you're coding a feature your boss requested and you suddenly got a mail from someone. The notification beep caught your attention and now you are curious what's in there. You paused your work to check email and realized it's nothing important so you moved back to continue where you left. But wait...

Can you really continue where you left or you will have to focus some more to recall where you left? Will you code at the same speed or will it take a while to build the momentum? I guess you already have an idea where I am going with this.

What just happened is you switched between two different contexts and there is always a negative cognitive cost that comes when you do Context Switching. It might be small this time but try imagining an email about a bug that has to be fixed immediately.

You fix the bug and try to continue the work you were doing before you get off.The cognitive cost will be much higher this time and you will take more time to actually continue where you left. Let's understand this a little better.

Secret: Replying late to emails is just fine. You don't have to bother when you're busy so feel free to disable the notifications. 🔕

Let's take the above example and call the actual work as Task 1 and the immediate bug fix as Task 2.

Case 1: Tasks done separately

The time required to do both tasks in isolation will be something like this:
Task 1 = 25 min
Task 2 = 15 min

Case 2: Multitasking

Now, let's try to do multitasking
Task 1 + Task 2 = 25 min + 15 min + 15 min (add the negative cognitive cost of context switching)

This added 15 min is the delay that took us to recall where we left and get back in the flow. That makes a total of 55 min.

You might feel more productive in the second case. You will think you were busy working and you got a lot of work done but what just happened is you were busy for a longer time while accomplishing the same amount of work.

You're not productive when you get a lot of work done but when you finish what you intended to do. I'll let you choose which one is better.

The "Flow"

What context switching is actually disrupting is the "Flow". Now, what is the flow?

Flow is a mental state that comes when you're fully indulged in the task you're doing, free from all distractions. Not only you enjoy the work you do but also it allows you to perform your best work possible.

This usually happens when you stick to a task that is neither too difficult nor too easy for a prolonged period.

This has added benefits in terms of neuroplasticity. Doing something mentally difficult for a long duration puts pressure on the part of the brain that is handling that particular task resulting in forming new connections and pathways inside the brain 🧠 and change how its circuits are wired.

Again, we have limited brainpower. Where would you like to spend that power?

Forming new connections and rewiring your brain that lets you perform better with each difficult task it encounters or perform context switching on multiple tasks which will eventually delay the total time needed to finish those task?

I have a suggestion. Focus on intensity rather than quantity. Stick to one task for a decent amount of time, don't give up when it gets tough. Let the neuroplasticity handle your growth 📈. This will help you improve your focus and the quality of work you're doing.

Secret: Focus is a learnable skill. Meditation is a proven technique to help you improve your focus quality and duration.

I think I was able to convince you that multitasking is not an efficient way of doing things. But not all multitasking is bad... What Shad!! You were just saying that it's bad and now you're saying it's not? 😱
Hold on buddy, let me explain my point 😅.

Not all multitasking is bad

When the focus required for doing two tasks exceeds the attention span, you lose efficiency. Let's understand this with an example.

Have you tried coding along with listening to music in your headphones? The music can be with or without lyrics and the effects are different in both the cases.

While listening to music with lyrics, you might realize that suddenly you have started humming the lyrics. What happened?

Your brain actually used some energy to process lyrics, recognize it, and provide you the upcoming verses that you memorized someday.
This energy is taken from the limited resource our brain had which means you now have less energy for focusing on code.

On the contrary, music without lyrics affects our brains differently. There are no lyrics so your attention span is not going to be stolen from you. But it actually helps our brain to sync with the subtle rhythm and easily reach "the Flow" 🌊.

There is one other benefit to it. Our brain is exceptionally good at tagging stuff. It recognizes the rhythm and associates it with "us trying to get some quality work done." This signals our brain to avoid distracting thoughts and focus on the task at hand.
Choose wisely what you club together and you can boost your productivity by a notable amount.

Secret: I have a playlist that I listen to while coding and I have a rhythm that I listen only when I'm trying to sleep. Over time, my brain has tagged these two rhythms as a cue for working and sleeping. It helps me reach the flow or sleep easily.🙆‍♂️

Benefit of Habits

Habitual tasks don't take up attention span. Notice what happens when you go for a bath. Do you actually think about bathing or it works on autopilot while you roam in the valley of your thoughts.

Try forming healthy habits and you can focus your attention somewhere else. A classic example could be working out in the gym and listening to podcasts & audiobooks or doing critical thinking in the shower 😬🚿.

So final takeaway can be, use your attention span wisely. Your brain is good at focusing but not at too many things. Make focusing easier by removing distractions and retain more information.

Go back and observe how I structured this blog in short paragraphs to reduce the load on your brain. Shorter sentences are easy to consume. I bet you didn't notice but it did help your brain to process and organize information much easily.

Try reading something with much larger paragraphs and compare which one is easier. Our brain loves stream of small chunks of information and we can use this for our advantage 😉. That's it for now. Take care and stay safe.
Shad

Marina Vorontsova's photo

I loved it! Thank you for sharing. You managed to intertwine humorous with serious advice quite succinctly. Please, continue writing. I'd love to read more of such self-help articles, which we can all benefit from. I sincerely hope you do follow your own suggestions because, to me, honestly, some of them are harsh to stick to. Like, in my case, I smoke, so I've been accustomed to breaking my work in chunks in-between smoke breaks, besides, walking around and smoking actually help me think. And as much as people are all different, and I'd better stop smoking, of course, I believe breaks are just as important as intensive work.

Mohd Shad Mirza's photo

Thank you so much. Yes, breaks are as important as work. I usually prefer to do work for 1-2 hours then go for a 15 min walk. Note: Using twitter in between breaks doesn't help in resting. 😅 Walks are best (doing nothing is key).

Victoria Lo's photo

Just read a book on the Flow state. You summarised it perfectly! Great write-up :)

Bolaji Ayodeji's photo

This is well written Shad! I love it :)