Do businesses still prioritize “multitasking” as a perk in an employee? Friends in HR, do chime in, and the neurobiologist in me will cover the rest.
I think multi-tasking and visualize “why yes, I can scroll TikTok while looking like I’m busy with work projects thankyouverymuch”.
I work for myself so I can’t allow those behaviors to exist in my day. It’s too costly, monetarily and to how smoothly my brain works. The brain functions at odds here are cognitive load, and context switching.
Let’s start with cognitive load. This is the feature where your brain needs to cycle information in your short term memory for a while before it will be “saved” to your actual long term memory.
For me, this pops up when I’m writing. I have the perfect sentence in my head, I’m Thoreau, it’s Faustian, I’m the next Joan Didion…JUST CALL ME HEMINGWAY.
I get interrupted by my permanent roommate or a knock at the door and BOOM. That perfect sentence is gone. I’ve forgotten it and it flits away, taking my entire train of thought for the piece with it. Never to be seen again. Infinitely frustrating.
In my household we built a little “on air” light for when I’m writing to avoid this. It’s a timer attached to a neon sign in the hallway outside my office that says “FU** OFF”. A gentle way to let my partner know that it’s not a good time to interrupt me. If you have kids or office mates, it makes a huge difference once you train them to respect it. Although…if you’re in a shared office you might want a different message for your light.
Maybe you feel like you can’t remember what someone said to you yesterday? This is the same feature. You’re distracted by your phone, a notification, and what could be a memory never sticks.
A lot of us, myself included, rely on tech solutions to outsource our memory. Bless the ability to record Zoom meetings so we can remember what we said am-I-rite?!
Close cousins with cognitive load is context switching. It’s a term familiar to programmers, and the brain version is very similar. When we switch from task to task (like switching from writing a blog, to check a text, and back to our blank page) our brain has to juggle processing power to keep up and switch modes for the different tasks.
While it sounds far-fetched, you can hide your phone in another room to test this…Most people average only 3 minutes on any given task before switching to something else.
Could be as simple as just peeking into your inbox to see what’s there and boom, your brain is changing modes. Joanna Wiebe once shared in a workshop I took with her that it takes on average 15 minutes to get back into the mindset of the task when you switch.
If you’ve ever chased the elusive flow state to focus on your work you know what this is about. It’s SO hard to find.
Both context switching and cognitive load show how distraction & multitasking harm your work
I’m feeling the burn of these two effects lately. I’m in the final editing stages for Rag (the indie motorcycle mag for ladies I’m self-publishing) and find that it’s either fully absorbed tunnel vision or go home. All my writing time is blocked there, leaving me to blow off my blog for a week or so to get this bad boy out the door.
It seems much of what makes me feel bad about this is that good old hustle guilt rearing it’s head. Should I be able to do it all and publish content here, talk to everyone on LinkedIn for networking AND write great stories? Shouldn’t we all be Gary-freaking-Vaynerchuk?
If cognitive load and context switching have taught me anything, it’s that our brains have limited bandwidth to deal with everything thrown at us and still throw back something worth reading. If we want to create really incredible work we have to pare down, or block our time deliberately.
I’ve had to accept I have to finish writing & editing before I can fully put on my marketing hat for Rag and promote it hard. Is that the industry best practice? Nah. But I’ll do better at both by focusing on one at a time since I’m bootstrapping it all by myself.
Worried that picking up your phone every 3 minutes is holding you back? Here’s a great suggestion (a twist on something I learned from Joanna Wiebe at Copyhackers).
Joanna runs a tight ship with her week. Her method is: Block your calendar, theme your days, and stick to it. So for her, if she schedules writing her projects every Tuesday and shipping them to clients every Wednesday, that’s all she does those days. She blocks it ALL.
It’s honestly brilliant. You avoid the mental penalty of context switching and know how to schedule your work and when. But let’s call privilege where it lives…It helps to have an assistant in these cases to handle new work requests and calls from clients with basic questions.
For me, I needed a bit more flexibility. Her method takes a lot of planning (and self control) and requires being really direct with clients so they know what to expect and when.
I use something similar but in smaller daily blocks. Each project I need to work on gets a block, and I don’t do anything else until it’s done. I’m also a bit more flexible in what goes where. If I wake up with a story in my head, I write that and move to invoicing in the afternoon when my brain is pudding from writing.
But I don’t mess in email, or slack or anywhere else until that block is done.
You have to train your brain for this. I ditched my iPhone for a Light Phone recently and it’s taken time to train myself to stop picking up my phone expecting it to entertain or distract me. It’s a stark reminder of how easily you are dragged down a rabbit hole.
Our minds take directing like an unruly kid. But, if you’re not getting what you want out of your days, it’s worth taking the time to create those edges for your day.
So, be nice to your brain. I’d challenge you to give it a try avoiding context switching and minding your cognitive load for a week or so and let me know how it goes. You can adapt your brain to better behaviors if you’re willing to deliberately shape your day to support them.