The science is clear: Multi-tasking doesn’t work. Its seductive allure stems from our ability to lie to ourselves in the mistaken belief that we can simultaneously respond to an email, listen to a conversation, watch a moving stock ticker, and compose an epic tweet.
At the 72nd CFA Institute Annual Conference, hosted by CFA Society of the UK, neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explained that the relevant question is not how many projects we can complete at once; it’s how we can structure our time to work on individual projects more effectively.
We feel pressured to accomplish multiple things at once because we now receive five times as much information each day as we did in 1986, Levitin said. This information overload can make us feel like we have to pay attention to avoid missing something important. “If you stop working for five minutes, you feel like you’re going to fall 10 minutes behind,” he explained.
Information overload can strike anywhere, even at the grocery store. In 1976, the average grocery store stocked 9,000 distinct items, Levitin said. That’s compared with 40,000 items available in stores today. But we only buy 150 products per trip, which requires us to identify and dismiss the 39,850 items that we don’t want. “You had to pay attention to these products to know that they were something you shouldn’t be paying attention to,” Levitin said.
The problem is that it’s futile to address information overload by handling multiple tasks at once. The human brain is ill-equipped to divide its focus. “As a neuroscientist, I can tell you: It doesn’t work. It’s a myth,” he said.
“Each little thing that you’re trying to multi-task with is a separate project file in the brain, and you’re not paying attention to all of them at once,” Levitin said. Instead, we rapidly switch between tasks and delude ourselves about our effectiveness. “One thing that the brain is very, very good at is self-deception.”
Levitin recommends mono-tasking over multi-tasking, focusing our undivided attention on important projects for set periods of time. He also suggested checking email no more than three times a day and focusing on a single source of urgent communication — identifying either phone, email, or texts as the best way to be reached when a response is needed, and then making sure that people who need to reach us understand what “urgent” means.
Working with productivity coaches and sharing information with colleagues and coworkers can also yield results, according to Levitin. He said that organizations work better when people acquire specialized information, as long as they share that information freely. “We do need to know this information,” he said. “We need to analyze it and act on it. But we don’t have to know all of it all the time.”
Unfortunately, in our professional lives, we often can’t avoid multi-tasking. Levitin noted that financial analysts, for example, deal with multiple sources of information that need to be integrated in real time. Those who perform these jobs need to hit their brain’s reset button more frequently, taking a break to rest and recharge their cognitive abilities to maintain their effectiveness.
Taking a break and allowing our minds to disengage from a challenging problem makes it easier to identify solutions later. Even something as simple as letting our minds wander for 15 minutes can improve our abilities. “It gets you ready to attack the problem as though you’ve just had a nap,” Levitin said.
There are additional benefits to maintaining clear boundaries between personal and professional thinking. Levitin pointed out that setting aside time for creative daydreaming and other opportunities for unstructured thinking leads to innovation and new ideas. It can even provide answers to the kinds of problems that can’t be solved with deliberate thought.
Making better choices about when to apply increased focus and when to take a step back from work will allow both actions to provide more benefit. Or as Levitin put it, we will be in a more powerful position to start solving some of the world’s big problems.
This article originally appeared on the CFA Institute Annual Conference blog. Experience the conference online through Conference Live.
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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.
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