Multi-Tasking Will Kill You


I owe you an apology. If I’ve spoken on the phone with you at any point in the past four or five years then there’s a decent chance (75%) that I was playing chess online at the same time. I’m sort of embarrassed if you are reading this. But I wanted to come clean. Maybe by confessing I’ll stop doing this bad behavior.

There’s two aspects of that last sentence. “Bad behavior” – is it really? And “by confessing I’ll stop”. I don’t know if I’ll really stop. It’s an addiction. I can’t help myself. If I even hear the sound of my phone ringing I reach for the mouse and start clicking on the chessboard after a game starts up.

First off, is it bad behavior?

There’s the myth primarily in the United States that it’s of value to be a great multi-tasker. Society thinks you’re smarter, more productive, better able to juggle problematic tasks mixed with plain tasks. People say it in their job interviews: “I am a great multi-tasker.” It brings up images of a great juggler. Someone who won’t drop the ball no matter how many you throw at him.

A few years ago I was riding in a car with the state senate minority leader of Connecticut. We were on our way to a speech he was going to give. He had the text of the speech up on the steering wheel and while he was driving he kept scratching out lines, making additions, reading from a Marcus Aurelius book to quote from and occasionally asking me if he should slow down the car for a traffic light.

Did he get into an accident? No. But he didn’t get re-elected for the first time in about ten years. Finally he dropped a ball. Too many were thrown at him.

All of these are variations on the classic case of modern day multi-tasking – like driving a car while talking on the phone. The primal multi-task in the new world order. And guess what? We can’t do it. Nobody can. Various studies (this seems euphemistic for bullshit so I’ll put link) have shown that cellphone drivers drive at about the same level (measured by accidents) as drunk drivers. People driving over the legal limit of alcohol in their system.

I already knew the above fact. Chess has a very statistics-based ranking system. When I’m playing chess while talking on the phone, not only am I barely able to focus on the phone conversation but my chess rank goes down by about three standard deviations. In other words, the non-phone version of me can beat the phone version of me 95% of the time. That’s a big jump down. And this is a result of doing just two tasks that I’ve done for tens of thousands of hours since I was a kid.

Think of all the times in the day you multi-task. Like reading an email while your kids (or lover, even worse) is talking to you. (As an aside, I like the word “lover”. It implies the full range from Valentine’s Day commercial sweetness to sex , without being stuck at any one point on that spectrum.)

Can I get rid of the chess/phone addiction? This is the “confessing and I’ll stop” aspect. It turns out that keeping a secret is bad for our health. A quick example. Take a group of HIV gay people. The ones who are open about their sexuality tend to live longer than the ones who keep it a secret. There are lots of examples where revealing a secret (even by writing it down on a piece of paper and then ripping it up before anyone sees it) has health benefits. Don’t believe me? Here’s the proof.

So now my secret is out. I’ll feel better. I’ll have better health. I’ll live longer. And I’ll probably be smarter. Because everyone will now see me as 100% more focused when I’m on the phone. And I’ll probably be better at chess.

But now be honest with yourself. How many times when you are reading a book where you have to go back and re-read the page because you were thinking of something else? This is multi-tasking also. Right now, for instance, I’m in the middle of a deal and something happened yesterday that could put the deal in jeopardy. I have no control over it. It was an appraisal on some real estate. So it’s out of my hands and we’ll just see. I could spend the morning thinking about it. Or I could say, “this thought is useless to me” and focus on whatever task is in front of me.

Most of the time I would “multi-task” – regret the decision that got me into that deal, worry about the future of the deal, think about the ramifications of the deal, and then try to pay attention to Claudia over breakfast. And here’s what the outcomes would be: Absolutely no change on the status of the deal. And of course no change on the past (it’s done). And nothing in the future would change. I have no control over it. I would be less healthy because of stress. And I would devote less attention to Claudia. Who might then resent it. Which would cause me other future problems.

Multi-tasking can ruin your life. Even “multi-thinking” can ruin your life.

Oh, and I just remembered the one time it did ruin a life. I was 18 and driving. I had just had a chess lesson where I had beaten my instructor twice in a row and I was very proud. I was imagining the game in my head. I ran straight thru a stop sign at 60 miles per hour. Hit a station wagon with an old guy in it. Four fences (one for each corner) got destroyed in the result. The older guy broke his leg. And I went through my front window while my dad’s car got completely wrecked. Multi-tasking.

So what should we do?

A) Don’t multi-task obvious disparate activities.

Driving and cell phone use. Reading an email and listening to your kids (you will get both activities done faster and more pleasurably if you do one at a time). Texting and walking. Exercise and watching TV (it results in less exercise benefits than just being focused on your body while exercising). Here’s a great one: talking to someone else while checking out in a store. The person working in the store probably wouldn’t mind you saying a sincere “Thank You”. Instead, he’s thinking, “man, this jerk probably never gets off his phone.”

B) Don’t time travel.

Regretting the past or worrying about the future is AUTOMATIC bad multi-tasking. It means you’re not focused on right now. Your brain is somewhere else and then by definition less productive right now. It’s all filled up with no extra space.

How to avoid time travel?

  1. Catch yourself doing it.
  2. Remind yourself these are “not useful thoughts”
  3. Breathe in and feel the air against your nostrils. This puts you immediately in the present.
  4. Think of all the sounds you can hear right now. This also puts you in the immediate present. Your brain, which is your time travel machine, is begging you not to do this. It keeps yelling, “HEY OVER THERE! I’M STUCK IN THE FUTURE! COME GET ME!” But it’s a trap. Don’t listen to it.
  5. Acknowledge what you should be focused on at this present moment. If you have nothing in front of you maybe just enjoy that you have no tasks right now. It’s a great pleasure to be a zero-tasker. I want to be a zero-tasker more and more in my life right now.
  6. “But,” you might say, “I really do have to worry about X and Y!” Ok, acknowledge you feel the need RIGHT NOW to worry. That doesn’t mean you HAVE to worry. It’s just a feeling that you have right now. How does it feel in your body right now. Watch it. Feel it. Let it get bored and disappear.

C) Don’t keep secrets.

A secret is a multi-task. You have to always be reminding yourself, “I can’t say this” while dealing with the people around you. What a burden. Remember: you lose 95% of your abilities when you multi-task. Imagine each secret you keep as another 95% loss of what you can potentially be. Pretty soon you are using none of your potential. And your mind is all the time keeping secrets and time traveling. You’re never here anymore. You’re gone. Bad BRAIN! We hardly ever got a chance to know you.

When you sip a coffee, don’t read the newspaper. Coffee tastes good and the newspaper always lies and you won’t be able to read through the lies. You’ll probably miss both those points if you multi-task it. Just taste the coffee. Enjoy it. By the way, I’m like Doctor Science today. Holding a warm cup of coffee actually makes you feel happier, makes you more generous, and makes you judge others more favorably.

Why would you want to lose those benefits by multi-tasking?

Here’s the great thing.

Everyone around you right now is multi-tasking. Everyone.

You just have to look around in the street. Everyone is walking around and talking on their phone or texting while walking. As a culture, we’ve not only become addicted to multi-tasking, we’ve put it on a pedestal and started to worship it. How come? So as to excuse our bad behavior and turn it into a hero. The hero of our culture can juggle 20 tasks at the same time and still make a million dollars and have great sex every day.

The reality is, if you DON’T multi-task, then you are the only one. You then become 20 times more productive than the ones who do multi-task. Nobody will be able to compete with you. You will be in a league all by yourself.

People ask me: how do you get so much done? I’m not bragging because I just admitted that I multi-task in the first paragraph. But I’m actively trying not to. And the more I single-task, the more productive I am. Your brain is hypnotizing you into thinking you are a hero when you multi-task. Why does the brain do that? Because “he” wants more things to do. He doesn’t want to be out of a job. He wants you to use him as much as possible. Bad BRAIN!

The real hero is the one who knows how to single task. To relieve the burdens of the past and the worries of the future. To shed the secrets that keep churning through the mind. To give up the need for constant multi-stimuli in order to feed the ever-hungrier brain.

The true hero is the one who can focus on the single task that is in front of him. And the even more courageous hero is the one who knows how to zero task. I hope I can do that one day. Even for a second. I’m going to try today. Maybe while holding a warm cup of coffee.

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