All Commentary
Sunday, June 25, 2017

Multitasking is Bad for Your Brain

So quit it and try "deep work".

If you want a great career in the 21st century, you need to stop trying to multitask and start doing “deep work.”

That’s one of the big ideas from Georgetown University computer science professor Cal Newport. He urges us to be aware that “there are different types of work and some types have way bigger returns than others.”

More than 25% of the average worker’s day is spent answering and reading emails. In his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Newport explains the difference between deep work and shallow work. You are doing deep work when your professional activities are “performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push[es] your cognitive capacities to the limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

In contrast, “shallow work describes activities that are more logistical in nature, that don’t require intense concentration.” Shallow work efforts, explains Newport, “tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.” In other words, they’re the type of work efforts that make it easy for your employer to replace you.

Deep Work Is Rare and Valuable

A 2012 McKinsey Global Institute study found that more than a quarter of the average worker’s day is spent answering and reading emails. When you throw in other disruptions such as meetings, checking your phone (the average user spends over 2 hours a day in 76 interactions with their phone), and social media, it is easy to see why deep work is rare.

Yet, Newport argues, while deep work is becoming increasingly rare, “at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”

It takes deep work to master hard things. To thrive in today’s rapidly changing economy requires a commitment to a never-ending process of deep work. Newport offers this example:

Intelligent machines are complicated and hard to master. To join the group of those who can work well with these machines, therefore, requires that you hone your ability to master hard things. And because these technologies change rapidly, this process of mastering hard things never ends: you must be out to do it quickly, again and again.

The importance of deep work is echoed by George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen in his book Average Is Over. What Cowen calls “quality labor with unique skills” will still remain scarce in this highly competitive global economy. Cowen offers up some questions to help us see if we will remain competitive:

Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? Are your skills a complement to the skills of the computer, or is the computer doing better without you? Worst of all, are you competing against the computer? Are computers helping people in China and India compete against you?

Take a hard look at your work day. Are you honing your ability to do deep work? Your position in the labor force is likely to deteriorate if you are only capable of shallow work.

If you’re only doing shallow work now, what can you do about it? You can cultivate your ability “to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task,” explains Newport. One of his suggestions for engaging in more deep work is: stop trying to multitask.

Multitaskers Are the Worst At It

I write “stop trying” because research shows that human beings can’t multitask, they can only switch-task. Each time we switch-task, we lose the possibility of entering into a highly focused state, what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” Switch-tasking is so disruptive that it can reduce our productivity by up to 40%. You are literally working harder to produce less.

Echoing Csikszentmihalyi, Newport describes how good a state of flow in deep work feels compared to the stress of shallow work:

We know it’s satisfying to enter a state where you’re giving full, rapt attention to something that you’re good at…. [On the other hand,] someone who’s based mainly in shallow work, neurologically speaking, is going to eventually construct an understanding of their world that is stressful and fractured.

The late Stanford University communications professor Clifford Nass, along with his colleagues Eyal Ophir and Anthony Wagner, studied multitaskers with the belief that they would uncover cognitive powers of focus that multitaskers had that others didn’t. They couldn’t find such a power.

Not only do chronic multitaskers lose time switch-tasking, but they also alter their brains in not-so-salutary ways. In an interview, Nass explains, “People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted.”

Multitaskers have lost the ability to do deep work.

The multitaskers “actually think they’re more productive,” but they are deluded. Nass explains why: “They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand.… They’re even terrible at multitasking. When we ask them to multitask, they’re actually worse at it [than non-multitaskers]. So they’re pretty much mental wrecks.”

Multitaskers claim, “When I really have to concentrate, I turn off everything and I am laser-focused.” But according to Nass, the truth is that “they’ve developed habits of mind that make it impossible for them to be laser-focused. They’re suckers for irrelevancy. They just can’t keep on task.”

In other words, multitaskers have lost the ability to do deep work. The way back to deep work takes time and commitment. As Nass explains, “When we try to revert our brains back, our brains are plastic but they’re not elastic. They don’t just snap back into shape.”

Start Keeping Score

In a Microsoft study on shrinking attention spans—“the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted”—Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella observed that an important trait for success was becoming rarer: “The true scarce commodity of the future will be human attention.”

How you choose to spend your time may be crowding out the time necessary for you to do deep work.

Are you blaming your circumstances—for example, a demanding boss—for your choice to not engage in deep work? Are you keeping your eye on a future prize—for example, a promotion or a salary increase—rather than making the day-to-day choice to engage in deep work? Are you reading this article and thinking, “Easy for Newport to say, but he doesn’t know my world?”

In her book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, Winifred Gallagher offers this guidance: “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.” What are you focused on today? How much of your day is spent on emails, meetings, or social media? How you choose to spend your time today may be crowding out the uninterrupted time necessary for you to do deep work.

To make deep work the core of your working life, Newport suggests keeping a scoreboard:

It seems like a simple thing, but without it, it’s so easy to go through a week and just say, “Well, I was busy and I think I did some deep work in there.” Once you start keeping score, you look at it and say, “I did one hour out of a 40-hour week? I’m embarrassed.” A compelling scoreboard drives you to action.

One caveat: a scoreboard only drives us into action if we stop blaming, take a hard look at the consequences of our choices, and decide there is a better way. If we can honestly say, “My choices have left something to be desired, and now I am ready to make different ones,” then we are at the bus stop for real change.

Reprinted from Learn Liberty.

  • Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore. 

    To receive Barry's essays subscribe at his Substack, Mindset Shifts.

    His essays also appear at the American Institute for Economic Research, Intellectual Takeout, Learn Liberty, The Epoch Times and many other publications. Barry’s essays have been translated into many languages, most frequently Spanish and Portuguese. He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership.

    Barry holds a Ph.D. in economics from Rutgers University and a B.S. in mathematical statistics from CCNY.