• Podcast

Episode 5: Multitasking & Switching Costs

  • By Dallas McLaughlin
  • March 9, 2023

Below is a transcript from an episode of my podcast, Unconsidered. Unconsidered can be heard on all major podcast networks.

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Hey, it’s Dallas, and I have a question for you.

But first, let me take you back to a place that’s all too familiar to each of us, a place where hopefully you haven’t had to spend too much time over the last couple of years.

You know exactly what I’m talking about – the office.

But let’s start with the good news. It’s a Friday and your boss tells you that as soon as you’ve knocked out all of the things you need to do for the day, you’re free to cut out early and enjoy the weekend.

But like any well-respected professional, you still want your work to have a degree of accuracy, skill and completeness.

So, with this carrot dangled in front of you, you start your day by listing all of the important things that you need to do.

And by this point we all know what goes into a typical day in the typical office. So, you’ll need to reply to a bunch of emails, make a couple of phone calls to clients, hold some internal meetings with coworkers, fill out some spreadsheets, submit an invoice, perform a performance review with a member of your team and complete your portion of a sales deck.

Easy enough.

So let me ask you the question, knowing that the quicker you knock these things out, the faster you can get a cocktail in your hand. So, how would you approach your day to be the most efficient with your time?

I’ll give you three options…

Would you A) Do one task at a time until each item is complete. Do you, B) Jump between tasks – send an email, make a phone call, have a meeting, send another email, and so on. Or C), Do you do multiple tasks all at once? Like, sitting in a meeting while sending emails, Slacking coworkers, and working on a presentation?

Take a second and consider it….

Okay. So if you’re the type that focuses on one block of to dos at a time, for example knocking out all of your emails at once before moving on to the next type of to dos, you’re already off drinking a cocktail somewhere.

If you’re the type that jumps back and forth between tasks, you’ll be meeting up with your more focused coworker in just a little bit.

If you’re the type to try to do multiple things at once, like sitting in meetings doing a lot of other things, it’s gonna be a while… so basically just forget about your shortened day.

Despite the startling research on this topic, and how incredibly inefficient multitasking is, the far majority of us are doing it. Some of you will even tell me that you’re naturally a multitasker, for you it “just works” and you’re actually able to do a lot more when you multitask.

But, that’s actually a lie. You just might not know it yet. And I’ll be back to tell you how I know that it’s a lie.

Let’s take a break and then we’ll dive in…

The Research

The question I opened this episode with is based on a few different experiments that we’ll talk about, but it’s mainly based on the work of Todd Braver, Jeremy Reynolds and David Donaldson.

In 2003 Braver, Reynolds and Donaldson published an article titled “Neural Mechanisms of Transient and Sustained Cognitive Control during Task Switching.”

Okay, I know, that’s a lot to tackle…

Essentially, what they did was divide respondents into three different working groups.

One group was given a single set of tasks to complete in a repeating manner. For example, numbers would flash on a screen and this group had to document those numbers as fast and as accurately as they could. These were the single-taskers.

Another group was asked to perform varying tasks, but in dedicated blocks of time. This is known as task-switching. For example they would spend a defined amount of time doing the documentation of numbers flashing on a screen, then they’d do a full switch and perform a new task. For example, this new task could be documenting colors that flashed on a screen. Then they’d switch back to documenting numbers, and so on. But they were always focused on one type of task at a time. This group is considered the task-switchers.

The last group was asked to do both types of tasks, but intermixed with each other at random. Sometimes they’d see a number flashed on the screen, sometimes it was a color, sometimes the elements even appeared in different places on the screen, and based on what they saw, they had to document their findings in the appropriate place. These are the task-mixers.

Then they measured each group’s performance in a few different areas such as response rates – which is how quickly the respondent reacted and made the documentation when the number or color flashed on the screen; they measured error rates or in other words, the accuracy of the documentation; and lastly they measured which group completed their entire project the fastest, when each group was given the same total number of items to document.

What they found is that the single-taskers were better in every measurement. Compared to the single-taskers, members of the task-switcher group had a 17% higher error rate and were 8% slower in their response rates.

So even when the task-switchers could predictably switch between tasks, and focus on solely that task while switched over, they were still prone to making more errors and they were overall slower with their responses.

This increased slowness to react and these additional errors are summed up and referred to as a switching cost. Another simple example of a switching cost is the time it takes you to remember where you left off on one task when you switch back to it from a different task. And then another type of cost is in the overall ramp up time it takes to get back into the flow of the task you switched back to.

And these switching costs compound throughout the day as you’re working on one task, and then you switch over to check a new email, then you switch back to the task, then you get a Slack message from a coworker, then you switch back to the task again and a coworker walks up to your desk and hits you with the classic, “Got a sec?”

And it gets even worse for the mixed-taskers – the group that was shown and asked to respond to items seemingly at random. This group had a 46% higher error rate and a 14% slower response rate compared to the single-task group.

Theoretically you could say a mixed-tasker’s work is half as good as a single-tasker due to their 46% higher error rate. And it takes them far longer. For every one hour of work done by a single-tasker, it takes a mixed-tasker 8 extra minutes to do the very same amount of work when they are juggling multiple tasks.

Extrapolated over an 8-hour workday, that’s 64 extra minutes of work required to complete the very same work a single-tasker completes in 8 hours. An extra hour of work, every day to achieve the same amount of work, while also taking on the 46% higher error rate. Over a month that’s roughly 21 extra hours of work, or almost 3 full days of additional work the mixed-taskers are committing themselves to due to their inability to focus their attention on a single-task at a time.

And this research was based on simple tasks. There are inherently higher switching costs as the tasks become more complex.

So what causes this overall slowdown in our work as tasks become intermixed and as the complexity of what we’re asked to do increases?

Why It Works

Think of your brain a little like a computer or your cell phone. Despite the massive leaps in computing power that we’ve seen over the last decade, as we open more applications, open more tabs in our browsers, download multiple attachments at once – each additional item we ask our devices to do comes at the expense of all other tasks that are running.

Can they all run at once? In many cases, yes. But could each individual task or download be completed faster if that was the only thing you were asking your device to do? Definitely.

Your brain is also a bit like your home’s wifi network. The more devices trying to use your wifi, the slower each device’s internet speed is due to the network’s limited bandwidth being spread across the network rather than one device getting all of the bandwidth it needs.

The human brain, as evolved as it is, physically lacks the architecture to perform two or more tasks simultaneously. If you asked a much smarter person than me, someone who knows the brain science of it all, they’ll tell you that the building blocks and systems that give us our most basic mental functioning – basically the wiring of our brains – just can’t do it. We literally can’t multitask. We can do one task, then completely stop doing that one task and do another task. We can switch between tasks. But we can’t do two at once.

You can’t simultaneously solve a math problem in your head and spell a word out loud. I’ll pause for a second while you try it….

At the highest level, when faced with a task, our brain likes to do three things, 1) identify a task goal – meaning, under what conditions is the task considered complete, then 2) our brain likes to select the relevant information to complete the task which can be pulled from existing knowledge, experience, or external resources like project briefs, and 3) our brains want to disregard information we’ve taken in that isn’t relevant to the task goal. Like for example, Becky in project management telling you how long it should take you to reach your task goal.

Just kidding.

But basically our brains operate on very linear paths. Identify the goal, select relevant information, disregard irrelevant information.

There is an area of the brain called a frontoparietal control network. The sole objective of this area of the brain is to identify the task goal and identify under what circumstances the task goal is considered complete.

Think of this control network like Google Maps on your phone. You type in an address and it tells you where it is. Pretty simple.

But it’s very limited in this way. If you give this control network one task, it knows which information is relevant based on the task at hand. If you give it multiple, often conflicting tasks with different task outcomes, it gets confused.

This frontoparietal control network is paired with another network called the dorsal attention network. Think about the relationship of these two networks like a software integration, but instead of integrating two software platforms, it’s integrating two areas of your brain that do two different things, allowing them to work together.

When the frontoparietal network identifies a task goal, it’s the job of the dorsal attention network to find all existing relevant information – whether that’s internal thoughts, or external resources – and filter that information down to only what is relevant to the task.

The dorsal network is basically the traffic coordinator of your limited bandwidth. It’s the blue line on your Google Maps. It helps lead you to your destination – your task goal – in the most efficient way possible. The dorsal network is constantly working to refresh, substitute and filter relevant information based on the current task.

But the more tasks we take on – whether task-switching or task-mixing – the more demand we place on these two networks.

As we mix tasks, we’re creating competing information streams of relevant and irrelevant goals and information.

We’re asking our frontoparietal control network to identify multiple task completion states. We’re simultaneously asking our dorsal network to find relevant information, and filter out irrelevant information for multiple tasks at the same time. But what is relevant information for one task – meaning you’re asking your brain to retain it – is often irrelevant information for another task and vice-a-versa.

This naturally puts our brains in a state of high-load. The more complex the tasks, the higher the load. When we put these networks under high-load, rather than the frontoparietal and dorsal networks working in tandem, they begin working independently. All of a sudden your frontoparietal network has a lot of task goals – a lot of destinations – while your dorsal network is trying to filter relevant and irrelevant information for various tasks, and these two networks stop communicating as efficiently as possible, and they can’t as effectively figure out which task goals align with which information.

This is what causes your performance to drop. This is why errors creep into your work. This is why you’re working 50-60 hour weeks and still feel like you’re behind and you feel like your work isn’t as good as it could be.

Because it’s not.

And this mental massacre is happening to you every single day.

What To Do About It

So we’ve identified that there’s a significant cost to task-switching and task-mixing. And we know that this cost comes in the form of the quality of the work you’re producing, your responsiveness to additional requests, and the length of time you’re taking on each task, causing you to work longer days than necessary.

But why do we keep doing this to ourselves? Why does this keep happening? Or, maybe we should start by asking the question, are we even the ones doing this to ourselves?

One of the biggest causes of over-worked, always-distracted employees is also one of the dumbest management trends of all time – the open-office floor plan.

Upper-management’s ongoing pursuit of always increasing worker productivity and collaboration has led many businesses to transform their traditional office spaces into “open” offices.

I suppose the theory of these business owners is that if you put a bunch of young creative people in a building, remove the walls and the doors, all of a sudden everyone will share their ideas and collaborate with their coworkers, and all of a sudden all of this innovation and a bunch of brilliant ideas is just going to pour out of their heads. And with fewer walls, there’s more transparency and accountability so workers will spend more time working, leading to higher productivity.

But there is actually no evidence that supports any of this.

For example, a 2018 study by Harvard measured a bunch of businesses who transitioned from traditional office spaces to open floor plans. And get this, after moving to the open-floor plan, on average these businesses had 73% less in-person conversations – which was the very thing open-floor plans were supposed to encourage. They also saw these open-floor plan employees spending 67% more time using email, and 75% more time using instant messaging applications like Slack, Basecamp and Email.

The businesses took all of their doors and walls away and the employees’ first reaction was to isolate themselves within digital communication channels.

This increase in electronic communication usage has led to more and more notifications, more alerts, more scheduled meetings, and more pointless communication. Partly because it’s so easy and seemingly efficient for someone to batch and fire off 10 messages to 10 different people in rapid succession.

That might seem to some like a great efficiency hack, but in reality all it is doing is making it incredibly efficient for all of us to quickly and easily distract each other with these seemingly harmless little pings and dings.

You know that coworker you have who makes the list of all the people he or she needs to message? The list might as well be titled, “Here are all of the people who’s days I’m about to completely disrupt.”

In that vein, another study showed that open-office employees were found to be distracted – meaning completely pulled away from their task – an average of 56 times per day! In an 8 hour work day, that’s once every 9 minutes.

It’s easy to understand why we’re all struggling so much with our productivity when we pair this number with another research project that demonstrated that it takes 23 minutes to fully ramp back up following one of these distractions. If both of these studies are to be believed – 9 minutes between distractions and 23 minutes to ramp back up – it tells us that we’re never fully ramped up throughout our entire day. We’re never achieving peak productivity and performance.

Open-offices are a failed experiment. They’re killing productivity and forcing employees to intermix their tasks throughout the day due to the bombardment of distractions. There is actually no legitimate reason for most businesses to have an open floor plan, other than the cost savings of having more floor space to cram more employees into.

And a ping-pong table. For some reason, there’s always a ping-pong table.

Another cause of employees falling into the trap of task-switching and task-mixing is bad management – whether that’s actually a bad manager, or poor project management tools – which lead to unpredictable tasks and unmanageable time pressures.

When faced with time pressures such as multiple competing project deadlines, employees begin to intermix their projects. This in turn slows down the delivery of all of their projects, which waterfalls into slowing down their coworkers who are dependent on the overloaded employee to deliver their piece of the project so that they can start.

Outside of time pressures, a 2015 Work Management Report of 1,400 employees, 31% listed “unclear priorities” as their top productivity challenge, followed by 28% listing “too many requests from others.”

Having spent a lot of time inside of full-service ad agencies – typically open-office floor plans at that – “unclear priorities,” and “too many requests from others,” to me sounds like a direct management issue.

When priorities aren’t clear across an organization, your employees become reactive and not proactive. And that’s not always the employees fault, though we tend to pretend like it is. The employee doesn’t understand what is absolutely critical to the business and what they should 100% be focusing their time on when it shows up on their desk, because you’ve probably never told them.

Your employees are getting hit with an unending wave of requests and they can’t separate important from urgent when they don’t know what you or the business needs most out of them.

Instead, they’re waiting for someone else to manage their project priorities. They’re waiting for someone to come along and say, “hey, do this, then do this and then do this.” When this starts happening, they end up working on a lot of other people’s competing priorities all at once, because something is both important and urgent to someone else, all the time.

Kyle in Creative is asking for some audience data that he won’t use anyway, Patty in Project Management is asking them to attend a meeting for a client they don’t even work on, Debbie in Partnership Development – whatever that even means – is asking your team to explain some technical jargon that she’ll mess up in front of the client anyway. Meanwhile, there’s a high-value sales opportunity sitting right in front of them, and they can’t find it because they can’t separate the signal from the noise and prioritize their day around what matters most – revenue.

Prioritize your team’s responsibilities. Focus their attention on what matters most to the survival of the business and give them permission to ignore what doesn’t matter. Because honestly, most things don’t.

So far I’ve blamed this mult-tasking problem on the business, on floorplans, management and tools. But those are all environmental factors. Things that will exist to various degrees no matter where you work.

We also have to take a lot of responsibility for multitasking. We’re our biggest enemies when it comes to multitasking, and there’s a number of reasons why.

For one, people tend to proclaim how great they are at multitasking, like they were graced with some gift that sets them apart from their less able coworkers.

But, there’s a great study that measured how often respondents multitasked, their perceived multitasking ability, their actual multitasking ability, the respondents impulsiveness, and their overall sensation seeking behaviors.

The research found that the people who chronically multitask are not the ones who are the most capable of multitasking effectively. Actually to the contrary. The respondents who self-reported as being highly-effective multitaskers were actually the worst at it. They routinely underperformed compared to the group of respondents who said they were poor multitaskers.

And these are correlated. The higher a respondent self-reported their ability to multitask, the worse they actually performed in the multitasking experiments.

Additionally, The group who frequently multitasked also had much higher levels of impulsivity and sensation seeking behaviors. The higher a respondent’s impulsivity score, the more likely they were to engage in multitasking, often because they are anticipating a higher reward in return.

You can see this impulsivity and reward-seeking play out in every office around the world. Imagine, an employee is working on one task, then a new request comes in which may have a higher perceived reward – the reward could be social standing, monetary compensation, a passion project, whatever is rewarding to the individual – so that takes the employees attention away from what they were doing. Then they get another request that takes them away from that one, and on and on and on.

But in reality the reward is often just superficial accolades. A big, “good job!” from the project manager, or maybe a shoutout from the boss at your next all-hands.

Big deal.

This research also suggests that chronic multitaskers are also more impulsive individuals in general, who act without always thinking and who have difficulty regulating their attention. As the research suggests, these multitaskers are multitasking because they lack the attentional control to block out distractions. They fundamentally lack some of the most basic cognitive skills required to control their attention and focus on a single task.

So with all of this research about multitasking taken into consideration, the next time you’re interviewing someone and they tell you that they’re an excellent multitasker – consider it a major red flag.

Because, when they’re telling you this, they are also telling you that, on average, they’re actually among the worst at multitasking and they’re unaware of this fact. They also lack the ability to prioritize their own work, they’ll be slower to produce work, which when actually produced will have more mistakes, and they will be more impulsive than your average employee, bouncing from task to task.

If it’s your employees telling you this, shut it down. Help them understand that they’re jeopardizing their quality of work, and doing exactly the opposite of what you need them to do. Send them this podcast if that’s what it takes. Educate them on what is a priority for you and the business, and that when those items come across their desk, everything else gets shelved until that thing is done. Give them the tools and resources to shut down their always distracting coworkers, and entirely unhelpful project managers. It’s your goal to help them focus on what matters, and to help them block out what doesn’t.

As for you. Who are you going to choose to be?

Are you going to choose to be a multitasker? Are you willingly going to choose to underperform compared to what you’re capable of, dragging out your timelines, letting others set your priorities for you, getting stuck on this treadmill of never ending work days?

Or are you going to choose to focus. Remaining focused on the single most important item on your list at that moment. The highest and best use of your time. Solely focused on that one thing that makes the biggest impact to your business. That when you accomplish it, it moves your business and your professional career forward in a material way.

Are you going to be a cog in a wheel, a participant in someone else’s race, or are you going to choose to focus on your craft, to be the best in your field so that you can produce exceptional quality work, the work your clients deserve and the work they are paying you to do, and deliver it on time and without errors. Every single time.

It takes focus. It takes one thing at a time.

So, who are you going to choose to be?

Dallas McLaughlin

The Business Owner's Guide To

Better Decision Making

As a business owner you are inherently a decision maker and it’s a function of your job to make consistently good decisions in critical moments. But no two decisions are exactly same. Having a deep understanding of how decisions are made and having the tools to create consistent decision making frameworks are necessary to make more rapid and impactful decisions on a daily basis.

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