Why We Are Addicted To Multitasking And 5 Ways To Break The Habit

“Multitasking is a survival strategy.”

“I’m an excellent multitasker!”

Science has told us that these conclusions are in fact delusions. Yet, they persist. Sure, it’s possible to drive to work and listen to a podcast, but that’s because only one of those tasks requires active cognitive engagement. When both tasks require simultaneous processing, 98% of us can’t do it. Have you noticed that if you get lost while driving, you turn off the radio? That’s because you now need your full cognitive horsepower to navigate.

The same is true at work. While you may only be browsing emails during a meeting, you’ve transferred your attention from the meeting to your inbox. You are present, but not cognitively engaged.

 While we know it would be better not to multitask – it signals to our teams that we’re not that interested and that it’s OK for them to – we can’t seem to help ourselves. That’s because our brain is wired to love multitasking.

First, there’s Dopamine, our motivation chemical. It is triggered by:

  • Anticipating rewards
  • Unpredictability
  • Cues that a reward is coming
  • Satisfaction of completing a task

Game developers use these triggers to create addictive games. Unfortunately, email pretty much works the same way. Does this sound familiar?

1. You’re in the middle of a meeting or an important project. You get a pop-up notification. You’ve got mail!

2. You want to ignore it, but your Dopamine is already at work sparking your curiosity: Who sent it? Is it important? Urgent? Good news? Bad news? Anticipation and unpredictability create itchy fingers. You’ll take a quick peek – just to make sure it’s nothing urgent.

3. It’s not urgent, of course. But now you’re hooked. You love to complete tasks and you realize this email only needs a quick response. A reward is within reach. Cue the Dopamine! You answer. Task completed. More Dopamine!

4. Now that you’ve started, you’re down the rabbit hole. There are a few other emails awaiting a response… and before you know it, the meeting is over and you were barely noticed.

Secondly, we like to be distracted.

One study found a big difference between what works and what we enjoy. Despite demonstrable data that we perform best when we focus on one thing, we perceive that we’re accomplishing more when we have multiple windows open or are rapidly switching between projects. Though it’s not the most efficient way to work, multitasking feels like less effort and it’s vastly more entertaining.

Breaking The Habit

Our neurochemistry may not be working in our favor, but it is within our power to fight back. Here are 5 proven ways to break the multitasking habit.

1. Break big tasks into smaller milestones. Mini accomplishments can make the important work just as gratifying as answering an email. For example, our first step in writing this article was compiling the sources.

2. Turn off notifications on your email during meetings or focused working time. If the mere idea makes you anxious, here is a surefire hack: set up a rule in your email systemto have your computer make a sound when you get an email with urgent in the subject line. Set an automatic notification that says “I’m working on an important project and have turned off email notifications. I’ll respond when I can. If this is time sensitive, please re-send using the word “URGENT” in the subject line.”

3. Start your day with a five-minute meditation. It is a simple, fast, scientifically validated antidote to a distracted life. Skeptical? There’s an app for that.

 4. Embrace the 45-minute meeting. Shorten every hour-long meeting by 15 minutes. Use that break to catch up on emails, take a mental break, and prepare to focus on whatever is next.

5. Conduct your own experiment. For one day, make a note every time you get distracted or interrupted in a meeting or during time you were meant to be working on something important. At the end of the day, reflect on the impact, notice when it happens, and make a commitment to one action that will help you increase your focus.

While any new habit is uncomfortable at the beginning, the long-term payoff for focusing your mind and time on what matters is immeasurable. Brain science has proven that focus can strengthen the mental capacity of your brain. Sadly, multitasking is believed to do just the opposite. Can any of us spare the brainpower? We think not.

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