The Myth of Multitasking

Logan Vantrease

Myth of multi-tasking

If you Google ‘Multitasking isn’t real’, you will receive 5,900,000 results. Let us further reinforce this by stating something we now understand as factual – multitasking does not exist. This belief is not our personal opinion. In fact, it’s documented neuroscience.

Slack recently noted that employees lose upwards of 130 hours/year in time spent switching between apps. They assigned a different name to this problem – context switching.

If you’re a software developer, you’ve likely heard the terminology before as ‘context switching’ is a phrase associated with computing. Your computer is running several processes and each focuses on its own thing. This offers the illusion of parallelism but in reality, your computer is moving from one process to another and then back until all tasks are completed. This act of jumping back and forth is called ‘context switching’.

Much like computers, our brains aren’t equally dividing our processing power to brilliantly handle two things simultaneously. We are just switching back and forth between tasks really quickly.

Someone snarky always tries to come up with examples that negate this. Yes, we are aware that you can walk on a treadmill while listening to music. Congratulations. We’re exclusively referring to complex tasks – the kind you handle in your workplace. Complex tasks involve anything more challenging than the example below.

TiVo reported the results of a recent study that found more than 3/4ths of people use their smartphones while watching TV. How many times have you realized you have no idea what’s happening on Netflix because you were scrolling through Facebook? If a lack of ability to execute multiple tasks exists for these mind-numbingly basic activities, we stand no chance attempting to context switch in the office.

Communication tools are the most common multitasking culprit in an office but these functions are invaluable. If you remove them or refuse to check your email throughout the day, you’re going to suffer negative impacts. With this in mind, we realized that a solution to context switching couldn’t nix these tools. Instead, we needed to integrate important information into the communication tool you currently depend on most – Slack.

We want to remove JIRA emails from your Inbox. We place JIRA actions in your Slack experience to avoid switching to new tabs. Facebook intentionally games its algorithm to keep people on its page for longer periods of time. We have a similar approach. We want to decrease the number of ways you can be distracted. We game the way your employees spend prolonged periods of time focusing on work.

Our desire at Nextup is to remove the number of tabs currently open on your screen. Integration decreases the need for multitasking. There are other specific benefits to integration that are invaluable to efficiency processes within a business. A one-stop service improves data accessibility, streamlines communication, and increases productivity.

It doesn’t take an organizational science/behavioral psychologist Ph.D. to understand that multiple tabs decrease our ability to pay attention. Multiple tabs allow our minds to wander. As we peruse through our 10 open tabs in search of the one that reads ‘[NAR-12] – JIRA’, we are reminded of everything else we were interested in today.

We see the Harvard Business Review article on team-building exercises. We think of the Washington Post article that was paywalled because we don’t actually pay for a subscription (but we are considering it). We take note of the absurd number of new emails waiting for our response. We observe the LinkedIn notifications that occasionally remind us of a friend’s birthday. WHO is actually saying ‘happy birthday’ via LinkedIn?

Each of these derails our current train of thought. It takes an average of 15 minutes to reorient to a primary task after a distraction. After we settle into the project at hand, these mental notes sit in the back of our heads, gently reminding us of their existence until we satiate our addictive need to check on them. Some refer to these as ‘switching costs’ but we call it the ‘Curse of 15 Open Tabs’.

Our software decreases the number of opportunities that can derail our attention.

Maybe some of you aren’t sold that multitasking decreases productivity. Let’s use a quick example that can be found on every single ‘multitasking isn’t real’ article. We shamelessly stole it.

Grab a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. On the left side of the page, I want you to write ‘Multitasking is easy’. After you are done, write the numbers 1 – 15 on the right side of the page. How long did that take you? Maybe 15 seconds?

Now time yourself switching between the two tasks. Write one letter from the sentence ‘Multitasking is easy’ on line one of the left side, then write “1” on line one of the right side. Alternate back and forth between writing the next letter in the sentence and the next number in the sequence. Repeat until you’ve completed both tasks.

How long did that take you? It takes the average person 2x the amount of time. Multitasking doesn’t make our level of productivity more effective. Context switching decreases productivity.

It might present the mirage of increased productivity but in reality, that’s only because we are pleased with our (false) perceived ability to juggle so many things at once. 10 years of cognitive science, behavioral science, and modern psychology related to context switching prove that multitaskers do less.

It doesn’t help that we live in a technological age where people can call you or send you emails/messages at any hour of the day. Twitter feeds and push notifications increase the noise when you’re trying to focus on the signal. We understand that these forms of communication serve to interrupt. It’s why JIRA Integration+ decided to introduce the ability to parse notifications.

You can set a timer that decides when you receive virtual updates. Your team can choose to receive pings every 30 minutes, every 2 hours, or just twice a day. This prevents your productive deep-work session from being interrupted but it’s important to recognize that certain notifications are worthy of interrupting your time. With JIRA Integration+, you can identify which notifications are important enough to break through that setting.

Less than 10 years ago, Harvard psychologists found that people spend almost HALF of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re currently doing. Terrible news for businesses who need to capture their employee’s attention and even worse news for those about to trust surgeons in the next month. At Nextup, we decrease the number of instances that distract attention. It’s why our churn rate is so low. It’s why we’re successful.

If you’re a software developer, ask yourself what percentage of your day is actually dedicated to writing code. Don’t forget – you’re not an inbox relations specialist. You’re a developer. We suggest you act like it.

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