Maureen Sullivan, the COO of Rent the Runway, describes herself as “excelling at ‘context-switching’ — rapid toggling from task to task.”
Ok Maureen I’m gonna have to stop you right there – there is not such thing as “excelling” at context switching. That’s not how human brains work.
The pioneer of the research on context switching and multitasking is Professor Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at our very own Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Doing several things at once is a trick we play on ourselves, thinking we’re getting more done. In reality, our productivity goes down by as much as 40%. This is why Professor Miller thinks the multitasking lifestyle is a bunch of bull. “People can’t do it very well, and when they say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” he says. “The brain is very good at deluding itself.”
So Maureen is deluding herself. But so what? She clearly has a successful business so no harm no foul, right? Well, not really.
Context switching and multi-tasking is a big contributor to overwhelm, energy suck, and pre-burnout. An American study reported in the Journal Of Experimental Psychology found that multitasking has a negative physical effect, prompting the release of stress hormones and adrenaline. This can trigger a vicious cycle, where we work hard at multi-tasking, take longer to get things done, then feel shitty, stressed-out and compelled to multi-task more.
So you feel worse and get less done. Fantastic.
Additionally, a study by Institute of Psychiatry found that workers distracted by email and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.
If you’re going to drop your IQ, at least have fun doing it.
So how do you cut down on context switching in a workplace that demands more and more?
1) Get sleep (and nap if you can) – A well-rested brain is a brain that is more alert and focused and can keep its attention for longer. Plus, sleep is a great way to regain those IQ points.
2) Plan ahead – If you have no idea what you need to put your focus on, you will spread your attention over multiple things. Know your goals and your intended result ahead of time.
3) Turn off notifications – If you are not in a job where life and death depends on you being reachable, silence any dings or beeps or rings that may pull you out of your zone.
4) Take breaks – Get up and stretch, drink water, go for a walk, and do other activities to un-velcro your brain every once in a while. Especially when you find it harder and harder to stay on track, it’s often best to put things down and come back with a fresh perspective.
Last, but not least, don’t expect perfection.
In an ideal world you’d be able to have laser focus when needed and never be interrupted. But the reality is life happens whether we want it to or not. Being able to plan ahead and be aware of energy leaks is the first step in breaking the multi-tasking habit and creating a more productive and sustainable work life.