Constant Task Switching

Constant Task Switching

My last post was about training the brain to become less dependent on continuous novelty and to become better at concentrated focus. Training the brain for deep work requires that we wean ourselves from distractions and in some senses rewire our brains to be less dependent on distracting stimuli.


Cal Newport describes exactly what it is with today’s technology that ruin’s our ability to focus. He says it is not just a distracting technology or habit, but our constant task switching. It is the multitasking (or what we call multitasking) that makes it so hard for us to actually do anything. “The idea motivating this strategy [strict regulation of our internet usage and time] is that the use of a distracting service does not, by itself, reduce your brain’s ability to focus. It’s instead the constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.” 


A lot of the important work that we need to do is hard, includes some drudgery, and requires a good amount of brain power to think through the best way to design, implement, and complete. Often times this requires reading important technical documents, writing detailed reports, or building spreadsheets or tables. All of these activities have parts that flow nicely, and all of them have tedious parts that require attention to detail to make sure everything is well considered, thorough, and accurate. These activities require deep work.


If you continually jump between your deep work and your twitter feed, or the scoreboard for the league, or your Snapchat, you will be taking your mind off the important but tedious work and giving your attention over to something designed to be more stimulating, but that is ultimately unimportant. Your brain won’t be able to put up with long boring stretches of time, and eventually the consequences of your bad habits will catch up with you. It will take you longer to do detailed writing and to complete projects. You will miss small details in your constant task switching and your accuracy will suffer. Your mind will become accustomed to switching into a fantasy world of distraction, and you will find yourself at family dinners pulling out your phone instead of being present with loved ones. To get better at deep work, and to get the benefits that come with a focused mind, we have to work against the constant need for distraction, and that means developing habits that put low-value/high-stimuli distractions into a proper time and space, so we can enjoy them appropriately without letting them interrupt our important work.
Switching Tasks - Deep Work - Joe Abittan

Switching Tasks

The big problem with multitasking is that our brains literally cannot do it. Our brains don’t work on multiple problems at the same time, instead, our brains switch between tasks rapidly to make it seem like we are multitasking. What we are really doing, however, is inconsistently working on one task for short bursts.


It turns out, this is a terrible approach to actually doing great work. As Cal Newport puts it in his book Deep Work, “To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work.” [Emphasis in original]


Being mediocre in our work is fine if we don’t care about our work. If we don’t care whether we are in a position that might be cut during tough times, if we don’t care whether our work makes a difference, and if we just want to get paid and go home, then we can be mediocre. However, if none of those things are true, then it matters whether we are exceptional or average.


To be one of the top producers in our field, to stand out in our firm, and to be a crucial team player who is promoted, retained, and given important responsibilities, we have to perform at our best. High quality performance requires mental focus and grit. The only way to build focus and grit as habits that we can maintain for substantial stretches day in and day out is to practice engaging in deep work.


Multitasking (or multiple task switching as it might be better described) harms our ability to focus. Newport writes the following about switching tasks, “When you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow – a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about he original task.” You can’t get into deep work if your mind is not completely focused on the task at hand.


Checking email constantly, working on a project for 15 minutes before allowing someone else to pull you into another project for 15 minutes, and trying to do meaningful work in the extra 5 minutes before meetings is a dangerous work strategy if producing high quality work is important for you. There may be times where it is good to step away from a difficult problem, to let the subconscious chew things over a little bit, but doing so continuously is unhelpful. The brain needs time and space to dive into one area to focus consistently, otherwise it is not fully applying itself to the task at hand, and the results will be as haphazard as our thinking process.

Monotasking and Focus

A big part of author Colin Wright’s lifestyle is his minimalistic approach to life.  Wright travels across the world writing from wherever he finds himself living, and he typically does not settle in one place for more than a year or so at a time.  Without a truly permanent residence he has adopted a minimalist lifestyle, which he believes helps him focus.  In his book Considerations Wright addresses focus with a short essay about what focus is, what leads to greater focus, what distracts from focus, and how we benefit from greater focus.


Wright leads off with an explanation of minimalism expressing his ideas behind a life with less. Living with fewer things to worry about gives him more time and energy to focus on things he finds interesting as opposed to working on managing ‘things’.  He continues with his dialog on focus to explain that another type of minimalism can be very helpful for us on a daily basis,


“Focus can be about mono tasking: doing one thing at a time, and allowing your brain to process everything about what’s happening with that one thing.  Conversations become richer, work is easier, ideas present themselves with greater frequency and ease. This type of focus is momentary, but incredibly effective.”


I think  that we all realize that our multitasking has negative effects on our output, but we defend multitasking by explaining how busy we are and by creating excuses about the timelines and urgency of our products, phone calls, emails, and reports.  A constant pressure to accomplish more in less time forces us to push toward greater productivity, and drives us to perform multiple processes at the same time.  What Wright’s quote shows is that everything about our work becomes more robust when we can monotask and focus on a single thing.  To tie in with Paul Jun’s writing about focus, we can think of focus as a flashlight. If our flashlight of focus is shining at just one thing, then the beam of light directed in one direction will be very strong. But if we use mirror’s to split the beam to two things, the amount of light illuminating either thing will be lessened.  As we subsequently split the beams with more mirrors, we reach a point where the things we focus on become indiscernible because our focus is too fractured and weak.


The other aspect of Wright’s considerations about focus that I am drawn to is the way he explains on the rewards of monotasking and minimalism without attacking the person who is multitasking.  As a millennial I heard all the negative studies and stories about multitasking  and it’s negative effects on my brain.  The news stories and research presented in class always felt like a negative attack against my generation, and in many ways felt like a challenge for me and my peers to continue multitasking to prove the scientific community and the community of skeptic teachers wrong. Wright in his writing simply explains the peace of mind and the areas of life that a single focus strengthen. This is a much more effective way to invite the individual in to a life of monotasking and minimalism.