Shallowtasking

Probably, you should not be reading this.

Probably, I should not be writing this.

Don’t we both have more important things to do at the moment? Don’t we both have other things on our minds as well?

Of course, we have.

Especially when in home-office the likelihood of doing several things in parallel, maybe even unconnected to each other, increases significantly. Self-secure as we are we might pride ourselves with the observation that we are able to multitask – and therefore highly efficient. Others might simply enjoy the frequent change of subject because their attention span has suffered from years of online-fast-food. For us it’s different. For us, just everything is important. Of course.

And so, we write mails during the more boring parts of a video-conference , we develop a concept with our phone next to us – and make sure to answer calls immediately while going on sketching our last idea. We jump from reading an article to writing an article – convincingly downgrading the priority of and time needed for today’s top-to-do. Just artistic freedom. And hey, if a client wants something – who are we not to deliver immediately.

Well, there are two scientifically proven observations which are kind of a dull-lining to that story:

  1. There is no such thing as multitasking.
  2. Whatever you consider as multitasking it might likely make you sad and dumb.

Our brains are magnificent structures. They are capable of the most complex and the most ordinary things. But what they are simply not built for is multitasking. Of course, there are highly automated tasks that we perform without paying attention. And there might also be some subconscious processes going on which we are not aware of until they get to the surface. But this is not what we would refer to as multitasking. Multitasking usually means actively and consciously doing two or more things simultaneously. And that just never happens.

What does happen though is that we switch our attention from one subject to the other. This is what we train to do every day and where we also get better at. But it comes with a cost. Like in manufacturing there is time needed to change from producing one product to producing another one. Of course, these times are significantly shorter in your brain – so short that you might not even be aware of them. But still the change consumes energy – energy which is not going into the task you do. Besides that, it also undermines the quality of what you are doing: the attention you are able to pay to your counterpart and thus the connection you are able to establish. The depths of your thoughts developing that concept. The speed of finishing your mail or article. All that suffers when you do things in between or presumably “at the same time”.

I will therefore refer to multitasking as shallowtasking in the future. With its opposite being focusing or deeptasking.

But we are not done yet. Because undermining the quality and efficiency of your work and the connection to people around you is not the only harm shallowtasking does to you. Others might feel a decrease in your attention-span, your creativity, your problem-solving skills – and test would likely prove them right. And on the longer run shallowtasking will also affect your emotions. Newer studies show that it makes you more depressed and sadder when you work like that.

This is what many people feel these days. Even though we enjoy the freedom of not being supervised in our home-office, travel less, eat more healthy, maybe even exercise more – our mood seems to get heavier at times. There are most likely different factors contributing to this. But switching between tasks, being interrupted by your loved-ones, doing the laundry in between – all this might likely contribute as well.

We should stop finding excuses for being interrupted. We should start being realistic about what can be pressed in a day. And we should approach others to explain why we might be not reacting immediately. Not despite the fact but because of the fact that we are working alone at home.

For me, writing these sentences has been the first thing I did with full attention and without interruption today. It might not have been my top-do-do for today. But the silence felt good. And there is more energy now than there was before.  

So maybe – after leaving a like if you liked this – you switch of your browser and decide on the one task you will allow to fully occupy your mind for the next 45 minutes.  I will do the same.

Let’s see what happens.

Further reading: Overview on switching costs and nice read on multitasking with references.

Further watching: My own Review of books focusing on focusing more (in German)