Pay Attention! The Myth of Multitasking

27 February 2023 |
Episode 6 |
33:17

Episode summary

Do you struggle to concentrate for long periods of time? Is the lack of focus affecting your ability to finish important tasks? In this episode, I explain the 3 types of human attention and how your executive attention – responsible for sustained focus – is affected by using digital devices. I explore why multitasking is a fallacy and bad for everything from your performance to your wellbeing, and share 6 practical steps that you can take to manage your devices and set yourself up for maximum focus.
 

Episode notes

In this episode, I talk about:

  • The 3 types of human attention – alerting attention, orienting attention, and executive attention – and how they are impacted by your digital devices
  • The role of executive attention in helping you to maintain focus, concentrate on tasks, and achieve your goals
  • Why the mere presence of your smartphone is enough to distract your focus
  • How often you switch tasks and the surprising number of times that you interrupt yourself
  • The myth of multitasking and why it shouldn’t be considered a positive “skill”
  • The negative impact of multitasking on your performance, work-life balance, mental health, memory, and emotional wellbeing
  • Global attempts to tackle the rise in “distracted walking” as more people walk the streets while focusing on their phones
  • 6 steps to managing your devices and optimising your digital workspace for maximum focus

Resources and tools mentioned:
Website blockers

 

Episode transcript

Expand to read a transcript of this episode

[00:00:34] Hey guys, welcome back to The Digital Diet Podcast. I hope you’re well and that you’re feeling good today. I’m feeling good because this is Episode 6, which might sound a bit weird, but I’ll explain. This is the third solo-hosted podcast that I’ve launched in the last 10 years. I produced almost 100 episodes of another podcast, working with an amazing team, but in my previous two solo-hosted podcasts, I’ve never made it past four episodes.

[00:01:10] The first one was an interview series and I kind of launched into it without much planning. It was my first time podcasting so I very quickly ran out of guests, and I struggled with having the time to keep up all of the guest outreach to keep a line of guests queued up to come on the podcast. It was also filmed and I wanted to be in the same room as the guests as much as possible, which had some logistical issues in terms of conflicting schedules and filming locations. And my main focus at the time was on writing and publishing my first book, so the podcast wasn’t a priority and it died a death pretty quickly.

[00:01:54] The second time around, it was just me on my Jack Jones dishing out online branding and marketing advice for solopreneurs and small business owners. I thought only having to organise myself would make things a bit easier, and this time I went audio only to massively cut down the amount of production that was required. But it was still a lot of work, even for me who loves to talk and, ultimately, I just didn’t have the capacity to keep it going as I took on other projects.

[00:02:26] So to get to Episode 6 on The Digital Diet Podcast feels like a small but mighty achievement. The feedback has been so positive and I’m really enjoying talking about digital wellness each week. And I know that everything I learned and the experience of doing those other podcasts has played a huge part in shaping this one. But the other day, I got to thinking about what else is different this time. And I realised that one of the big things is my focus.

[00:02:59] When I was first getting up and running, this podcast was my main focus. And as the weeks have gone on and I’ve started to work more on other parts of my coaching business, it’s been my ability to remain focused on the podcast during the specific times that I’ve set aside to work on it. Things definitely started out slowly because I was a bit rusty, but each week I can feel myself getting more efficient with the preparation and production.

[00:03:30] A friend asked me the other day how I approach things, and I told her that I research and write quite detailed notes ahead of recording and then work from that. I think it’s different for every podcaster, but that’s what works for me because otherwise I would forget to say stuff or probably ramble a lot more. And, for the moment at least, this is the part of the process that takes the longest and requires the most concentration.

[00:03:58] And that’s what I want to talk about over the next couple of episodes, because I know that staying focused and concentrating on things for long periods of time is something that we’re all struggling with more and more in the digital age. And while there are some obvious things that you can do to help yourself stay focused, like putting your phone in a separate room when you’re trying to work on something, there are also quite a few less obvious or less intuitive ways that have been proven by research to help improve or restore your focus and attention.

[00:04:33] So today, I want to get clear on exactly what we mean when we’re talking about focus, attention, or concentration. The fallacy of one of the superpowers that we all seem to think we have, which is the ability to multitask. And I want to share the first set of basic tips to help you stop your devices from distracting you.

[00:04:56] We actually have three different types of attention as humans. And though they’re all important, we’re really talking about one specific type of attention when we talk about being focused and concentrating. In fact, the other two are partly to blame for us getting distracted. The first type, alerting attention, makes it possible for us to detect novelty in our environment, so that we don’t miss out on opportunities to get rewards or avoid threats. So basically, we get alerted, it’s exactly as it sounds.

[00:05:34] Alerting attention is essentially a reflex action. It’s a function of the primitive part of your brain that evolved to support your survival by reflexively alerting you to the presence of food, potential reproductive mates, and danger. Alerting attention means that you are in a constant state of readiness, always ready to receive information, and it’s triggered by both external stimuli, like sights, sounds, or smells, and internal stimuli, like distracting thoughts.

[00:06:10] So your digital devices trigger your alerting attention through constant visual notifications, sounds, and even vibrations. Even though these may be insignificant or irrelevant to you in the moment when you’re trying to concentrate, they’ve led to a subconscious expectation that something might happen, causing you to constantly monitor your devices just in case.

[00:06:36] One study even revealed that these types of alerts activate the same involuntary attention system that makes you respond to the sound of your own name. So, if you’ve ever had your head down in something and been able to tune out all the background noise, you’ll notice that as soon as someone mentions your name, either directly to you or because they’re talking about you very close by, suddenly you snap out of it. You register what is going on in your environment.

[00:07:09] And although when it comes to devices, we’re talking about visual, audible, and touch cues, so notifications, pings, rings, and vibrations, there have been several attempts in the past to tap into smell that ultimately never took off commercially. Now, I had never heard of these, but I think it was quite interesting.

[00:07:32] There was the oPhone, which had a built in palette of 32 scent cartridges and played back what they called oNotes, so photographs tagged with up to four smell words, everything from buttery to fishy and to yeasty brioche. I’m not really sure why you would want to smell fishy, but I get the buttery and the yeasty brioche.

[00:07:58] There was the Osmooze, which synchronised with your email programs to release contact-specific scent notifications. And even the Scentee. which was an iPhone dongle that plugged into the headphone jack and could be programmed to release a burst of rose, lavender, or buttered potato scent when there was a text message or an alarm. And to be honest, I wouldn’t mind being woken up to buttered potatoes, but maybe that’s just me! I say all of this to say, that device manufacturers know exactly what they’re doing by tapping into our alerting attention.

[00:08:38] The second type of attention is called orienting attention. As the name suggests, orienting attention allows you to filter the information that you’re receiving from various stimuli sources and direct your attention towards a specific stimulus at any given moment. It’s triggered by specific spatial cues, so sensory inputs from your environment, but it can also be triggered by internal cues in your memory.

[00:09:07] The key thing is that you’re aligning your attention with a specific source, whether that’s something you can see or a thought in your head. Orienting attention can be overt, so you might move your eyes in the direction of a specific stimulus, like if you see someone enter a room. But it can also be covert without any corresponding physical movement, which is what happens when you’re distracted by a random thought and you tune out in the middle of a conversation, but still appear to be listening.

[00:09:41] So this means that your digital devices impact your orienting attention through their physical salience, i. e. just by being there in your environment. The presence of your devices diverts your conscious attention away from the tasks that you might be trying to focus on and towards both thoughts and behaviours associated with using your device. Several studies have shown that we spontaneously interact with our phones at very inopportune moments, and this distraction negatively affects not only our performance in the task that we’re trying to focus on, but also our enjoyment of those tasks.

[00:10:21] And these findings are not surprising, because we all know that we find ourselves picking up our phones completely voluntarily when we are supposed to be focusing on something, when we’re in the middle of conversations with people. It’s not necessary for us to hear the phone ring, or feel a vibration, or see a notification pop up anymore for us to just keep picking up our phones.

[00:10:45] The third type of attention is executive attention, and this is the one responsible for sustained focus and concentration. Executive attention allows you to direct your focus and your behaviour towards your goals, whether that’s researching and writing podcast notes, in my case, or you trying to prepare a presentation, or review material that someone has sent to you.

[00:11:11] Executive attention is a component of your working memory, which filters out useless or distracting stimuli from the forefront of your consciousness, so that useful and important information, which is related to the single conscious task, can be stored and used, allowing you to focus on that task.

[00:11:33] Unlike alerting attention, executive attention is a function of your prefrontal cortex, the newer part of your brain that’s responsible for higher order cognitive functions, and it helps you to manage your cognitive load, so all the things that your brain needs to juggle. And it does this by resolving conflicts between them, so that instead of just going along with your usual habits and expectations and being distracted, you can perform the sustained focus and behaviours that are needed to pursue your goal.

[00:12:07] So, you’d probably expect that digital devices wouldn’t have such a great impact on executive attention. But, once again, just the presence of your devices is enough to have an effect. And this is for two main reasons. Firstly, your cognitive capacity is limited. You can only process a certain amount of information at any given time.

[00:12:33] So the mere presence of your smartphone, in particular, causes you to use up some of your cognitive resources in an unconscious effort to inhibit the automatic orienting attention that you give to your phone simply because it’s in your field of view. Even when you’re not actively using it. These same cognitive resources therefore become unavailable for other tasks, reducing your cognitive capacity and affecting your performance on other, potentially more important, tasks that you’re trying to focus on.

[00:13:11] The second reason is because the presence of your devices constantly makes you aware that there is a much broader and highly active social and informational network that you are not part of in that exact moment when you’re trying to concentrate on one thing. So you find it difficult to sustain focus on more complex tasks.

[00:13:34] One study reported that just the awareness of a missed text message or a missed call was enough to impair your performance on focused tasks. Because when these notifications go unaddressed, you experience message-related, and by definition task-unrelated, thoughts. Which makes sense if you’ve ever tried to work with your phone beside you, or with Teams, or Slack, or any of the other messaging platforms running in the background on your computer.

[00:14:06] Even when you try to focus and ignore messages or calls, which includes minimising those applications or turning your phone face down and silencing it, you’re still constantly aware that there is a whole world going on without you. And if you can see the notifications, then it usually isn’t long before you have to scratch that itch and see what those messages are saying or return the call that you missed, even if this means interrupting yourself and your focus.

[00:14:38] So you can see that, at any one time, there is an awful lot that you are asking your brain to do, both consciously and unconsciously, all just to stay focused on a single task. And living in the digital age has only made that tougher. According to author and professor, Gloria Marks, who is one of the foremost researchers on attention, on average people switch contexts, or what Marks calls working spheres, every 10.5 minutes. They switch activities on average every 3 minutes and 5 seconds, with approximately half of those switches being the result of self-interruptions, so you interrupting yourself. And after an interruption, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back on task.

[00:15:32] So, just imagine for a second that you plan to spend one hour working on a presentation or reading material ahead of a meeting. That means that if you’re an average person, you will have switched context almost 6 times, switched activities almost 20 times, with about 10 of those interruptions being down to you interrupting yourself, and I can’t even compute the maths on it taking over 20 minutes to get back on track with that presentation or that reading after each of those 26 interruptions.

[00:16:09] What I can say, is that it’s no longer a mystery why you’re finding it impossible to complete a presentation or read material that should only take an hour, within the space of an hour. And this is why I described multitasking as a fallacy, because most of us have often thought of it as a positive skill. You see “ability to multitask” in job descriptions and job ads all the time, but experience and research have both demonstrated that it actually makes us less productive. Multitasking simply doesn’t work for tasks requiring high quality and focus.

[00:16:50] Now, multitasking is considered to be the act of doing or thinking about several things simultaneously. But what it really involves is constantly transitioning your executive attention between two or more tasks, which results in one task impacting your performance on the other. And your performance tends to suffer the most when you’re distracted by stimuli that are unrelated to the task that you’re trying to focus on.

[00:17:19] And in the context of digital technology, this pretty much translates into the belief that we can simultaneously use digital media and devices, while still being present and delivering on our goals. If you’ve ever tried to talk to someone who’s on their phone writing a message but swears that they’re listening to you, then you’ll know exactly what I mean.

[00:17:42] Either what you’re saying is going in one ear and out the other, because the phone or the message has their attention and you’ll be asked to repeat what you said, or they’ll have no recollection of your conversation whatsoever. Or, they’re listening to you and briefly pausing their message composition, which slows down their progress on finishing the message and hitting send.

[00:18:05] For focused tasks, it is simply not possible to multitask. In fact, research suggests that even when you are behaviourally focused on a task and you don’t consider yourself to be multitasking, your mind may not be completely focused on the task because today’s environment demands that you manage multiple tasks, activities, or responsibilities simultaneously, causing your attention to frequently switch.

[00:18:33] And when you think about the roles of alerting attention and orienting attention, so you’re constantly in a state of readiness, scanning the environment, aware of people that are maybe passing in front of you, behind you, around you, this isn’t really that surprising. So, are there any circumstances under which multitasking might work?

[00:18:55] Well, the research says that multitasking may work for boring, easy, and less critical tasks. But the only form of multitasking that’s not detrimental to focused tasks is when the other task is automated. So, for example, the unified theory of multitasking suggests that listening to music while studying should have a negligible impact on your performance, because the attentional demand of the music is very low and the two tasks require completely different senses.

[00:19:27] But even that has nuances, in my personal opinion. I can listen to instrumental music, like jazz or classical music, when I’m working, but anything with words has me singing and tapping along, and it’s distracting. So when I really want to focus, I have to turn Spotify off. It just doesn’t work. When I think about automated tasks, I think we’re really talking about things like chewing gum while you’re walking.

[00:19:54] Chewing gum doesn’t require significant attentional resources. So it definitely has very little impact on your ability to maintain focus on where you’re walking, and you can ensure that you’re not bumping into people, or lampposts, or that you’re going in the right direction. And if you contrast this with trying to walk while texting, then you’ll see exactly what I mean. They’re two very different experiences.

[00:20:20] And as a side note, because I like to share the interesting things that I find on my explorations as a digital wellness coach, there are two very different approaches to tackling this specific phenomenon of walking and texting. In the South Korean city of Ilsan, they installed flickering lights and laser beams at road crossings to alert phone scrolling pedestrians, so they would stop walking out into the path of oncoming traffic.

[00:20:47] And in the Chinese city of Chongqing, I don’t know if I’m pronouncing that correctly, they opened a dedicated 30m cell phone lane, specifically for pedestrians who are walking engrossed in using their phones. So in South Korea and China, you can see that they’ve tried to accommodate this behaviour.

[00:21:05] And that contrasts with the Japanese city of Yamato, where they’ve implemented an outright ban on using smartphones while walking. And there are several US cities that are trying to establish what they call “distracted walking” laws, which would see people who use a smartphone while crossing the road hit with anything from a fine to community service, or even jail. So, I guess this is a bit like the jaywalking law.

[00:21:32] Now, obviously no-one is going to fine or jail you for multitasking in the confines of your own home or your office. But that doesn’t mean that you should simply continue multitasking away. You might be getting your important tasks done eventually, but at what cost? The research shows that multitasking results in you changing your working patterns and various other strategies to compensate for all the interruptions. Which usually means you having to work faster, during your personal time, or during unsociable hours in order to offset all of that lost time. And nobody wants that.

[00:22:10] The research also shows that multitasking leads to more stress, higher levels of frustration, and poorer working memory because you’re under greater pressure and unable to disconnect. And finally, the research shows that multitasking results in the exertion of much more energy by you, because you’re trying to complete more tasks in the same amount of time in order to constantly appear like you’re being productive.

[00:22:36] And this comes from those societal expectations that you should be able to produce a certain volume of work, because of the belief that multitasking is possible and even desirable. It’s a tremendous amount of pressure and, ultimately, multitasking doesn’t make you more productive. So I’d encourage you to try to focus on one task at a time.

[00:22:57] And if you’re struggling to concentrate, then as I said, over the next few episodes, we’ll be talking about the different ways that you can restore your executive attention and your ability to maintain focus. So make sure you subscribe to the podcast on whatever platform you’re listening on, so that you don’t miss any of those tips.

[00:23:18] To finish up today, I wanted to go over the digital basics, which have helped me to stay focused when researching and writing my notes for each podcast episode. They might seem obvious, but we’re all guilty of doing these things from time to time, myself included. So I always think that a little reminder never hurts.

[00:23:37] #1 Put your phone in another room or in a drawer. It’s the biggest culprit and, as we’ve talked about today, it’s still impacting your attention even when you put it on silent or put it face down on the desk, because you can still see it. So the best place for it is out of sight and, so that you won’t feel tempted, out of reach. You can take regular breaks and check it during those breaks, but don’t feel tempted to bring it back into the room with you, or to put it back on the desk. It will only distract your focus.

[00:24:12] #2 If you’re using a computer for your task, close down any applications that you are not using. This is one of the things that I’m the worst at doing. Back in the day, computing power wasn’t what it is now, so you really couldn’t have that many applications running because it would make the whole computer super sluggish and slow. But modern computing speeds are so insane that this is much less of a problem, and we all tend to get a bit lazy when it comes to logging out of applications and closing them down. The result is that they provide a distraction, either directly through notifications, or indirectly because seeing them there reminds us of all the other tasks that we need to do.

[00:24:59] So, log out and close down all those applications. And, if you’re using an Apple computer, I would even go one step further and remove the applications you’re not using from the dock. It’s been a while since I used a Windows or Android machine, but I’d imagine there’s an equivalent. Basically, you want to remove the application item from view. So, removing it from the dock or taskbar, removing shortcuts from your desktop, you get the picture. Out of sight, out of mind.

[00:25:30] #3 Close down files, documents, or tabs that you’re not using within that application. Again, this is something that I am terrible at, and I’m trying to be more conscious of it. There is literally zero reason to have five different Google Docs open, when you’re only working on one of those Docs. The same goes for having multiple internet browser tabs open at once. It’s a total multitasking overload for your brain. And I think this also comes from laziness.

[00:26:04] I’ve often opened a Google Doc to refer back to something. For example, I might have opened the notes from the previous week’s podcast episode to check on something. But then when I flip back to the Doc for the current episode, I don’t close the old episode document. And it only takes doing this a couple of times for you to quickly find yourself in a sea of files, tabs, or windows.

[00:26:26] And it’s exactly the same with browser tabs. I always end up going down a rabbit hole, clicking through from one article or blog post to a related one when I’m researching, and I never want to lose any of them so I don’t close them. Especially because they might not always be relevant to what I’m in the middle of writing, but they might be relevant to some other part of my business or the book that I’m currently working on.

[00:26:50] But this, my friends, is what browser bookmarks are made for. There are tons of other software apps and browser plugins that can help you store and organise webpages that you want to keep track of, but you don’t even need these. If you do nothing else, then start making use of the bookmark function on your internet browser. You can set up your own folders so that you know what the pages you’re saving are related to, and easily find them or come back to them later when you need to by searching. Adding webpages to your bookmarks is simply a one click process, so there’s no excuses.

[00:27:26] #4 Switch off all desktop notifications. Sometimes, even though absolutely everything distracting seems like it’s closed, you still get a notification popping up. It’s the most annoying thing ever. Sometimes you’ll know exactly where it’s coming from and you can go and switch it off directly, which usually involves adjusting the settings inside of the specific app. But at other times, it might be harder to figure out, especially if you’re heavily ingrained in a particular ecosystem, like I am with my Apple devices.

[00:28:03] I swear that I have turned it off a billion times, but I still get screen time notifications, iCloud notifications, and even random iCal notifications, which is interesting since I don’t use iCal, popping up on my laptop, and it literally boggles my mind. And not to get all conspiracy theorist about it, but I’m pretty convinced at this point that these notifications keep defaulting back to being on, whenever I perform an operating system update.

[00:28:35] So, if you switch off all your notifications, and still find that you’re being interrupted, then I suggest that you go nuclear and use the do not disturb feature. You can control the settings in your system preferences in case there’s a reason that you need to allow certain notifications, or calls or messages from specific people to come through. For example, in the case of an emergency.

[00:28:59] You can also choose whether you need to be connected to Wi-Fi to use the specific program that you’re using, in your period of focus. But otherwise, at the flick of a switch, you can literally turn off everything. And it’s amazing. That has been the only way that I have managed to get all of the flippin notifications that I think I’ve turned off, to actually be off! Just remember to switch the do not disturb off again, once you’re done.

[00:29:25] #5 Go full screen. If you’re working on a laptop or tablet with a smaller screen, then you’re probably already doing this. But if you’re working on a desktop computer or with multiple screens, then I always recommend running the application you’re using in full screen mode. This means that the entire screen is filled with the one thing that you need to focus on, which should help with maintaining your concentration.

[00:29:52] When you have smaller windows open and can still see the little bar with the time and the date, a mess of files and folders on your desktop, or the rotating carousel of photos from your last holiday that you decided to make your desktop background, you’re only giving yourself another source of distraction. So, make sure you open things up and put them to full screen.

[00:30:15] And finally, tip #6, since the research suggests that half of the time you’re interrupting yourself, you may want to explore using a website blocker. There are loads of options, both free and paid, so I’ll link a couple of them in the show notes. But if after implementing tips #1 to #5, you still find yourself opening up Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube, or vigorously scrolling through BBC News and The Guardian, or The Daily Mail, whatever your poison is, when you’re supposed to be concentrating, then a website blocker might help.

[00:30:47] Depending on which one you pick, you can block certain sites or the whole of the internet. So, although you might still find yourself self-interrupting, at least you won’t be able to indulge in your interruption, and you’ll be forced back to the task at hand much faster because there’ll be nothing else for you to do. And depending on which website blocker you opt for, sometimes you’ll even be met with a message that reminds you that you’re supposed to be focusing and tells you to come back later. So, a bit of a gentle push to go back and stay focused on whatever you are meant to be concentrating on.

[00:31:21] That’s it for today’s episode. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and if you’ve been struggling to concentrate on important tasks, or been getting stressed out by your attempts to juggle everything at once, then hopefully I’ve given you some reassurance that you’re not alone, and some practical ways that you can avoid the fallacy of multitasking, and actually be more focused and more productive.

[00:31:43] You can find show notes for today’s episode over on my website at thedigitaldietcoach.com/006. And, as always, if you do decide to road test any of the tips for helping you to sustain your attention, then I’d love to hear how you got on. Have they helped you to stay focused on one task at a time? Have you downloaded one of the website blockers and has this helped with self-interruptions? Be sure to let me know.

[00:32:12] You can either leave a comment on your social media platform of choice – all of my handles can be found on the show notes page, so that you can tag me. Or you can email me directly at podcast@thedigitaldiet.com, and I promise to respond to every single message. I know you’re busy and your time is incredibly valuable. So, as always, I thank you for choosing to spend a little of your day with me and I’ll see you next time.

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Marisha Pink

Meet Marisha

Marisha Pink is a Certified Digital Wellness Coach who is on a mission to empower women everywhere to live life more intentionally in an age of digital distractions. She helps women create healthier digital habits that better balance the technology in their lives, so that they can take back control of their time, reclaim their happiness, and live their best lives offline.

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