Why We're Addicted to Multitasking

We’re not good at multitasking.

Most of us know this. Our brains are only able to process one conscious thought at a time. Try to do more and speed and quality inevitably suffer.

We continue to multitask despite this knowledge. In a very real sense, we’re addicted.

This post explores the cause of our multitasking addiction. If you can read all the way through without checking your Twitter feed, you’ll see some solutions. You probably won’t like them because it’s going to feel like telling the Cookie Monster that cookies are only a sometimes treat. 

I’m also departing from my usual format and putting all the links at the bottom of the post. It’s my meager attempt to make multitasking slightly less inviting.


Why We’re Addicted

Multitasking is really about attention. 

We are easily able to focus our attention when we’re doing just one thing. Trying to do more than one thing requires us to focus and re-focus attention.

The part of our brain responsible for focusing attention is called the Reticular Activating System or RAS. It sorts through a deluge of internal thoughts and external signals to decide where our conscious brain should tune in.

Unfortunately, the RAS has an achilles heel: novelty.

Novelty’s ability to instantly capture our attention used to be a big advantage when we lived simpler lives. One of your ancestors might have been foraging for berries in the woods, humming a merry tune, when they suddenly spotted a bear. You’re here today because the novelty of seeing a bear grabbed their attention away from the delightful bliss of berries and tunes. 

Today’s world is an overload of novelty. 

Our phones and computer screens are a constant barrage of buzzes, beeps, and flashes. We have two monitors with multiple software programs running at once. Co-workers constantly interrupt us in our open plan office spaces. 

It doesn’t stop when we get home. We have television, DVR, Netflix, and video games. Our friends are only a text, Facebook message, or FaceTime session away. 

The rational argument for multitasking is managing multiple priorities. That might hold some weight if we were actually working on something useful. We’re not. Our RAS doesn’t make decisions about where to focus attention based on an activity’s relative usefulness. It’s a sucker for anything novel.

Finding something novel triggers a release of dopamine in our brains. Dopamine feels good. In his book, Your Brain at Work, David Rock calls this the “toward” response. It tells us that whatever we’re doing, we should do more of it.

And we do.


How We Become Multitasking Junkies

Chronic multitasking causes a few problems that heighten the addiction.

One issue is our dopamine receptors become dulled from overuse. That means we have to multitask more to get the same effect. Checking Facebook ten times a day isn’t quite doing it, so you might have to up it to twenty. 

Another problem caused by chronic multitasking is it lessens our ability to filter useful information from meaningless junk. A high priority project receives exactly the same attention as our latest status update. The end result is multitasking for the sake of multitasking.

While reading this post, how many times have you been tempted to stop and check something else? 

Email, IM, Facebook, Twitter, text, Pintrest, Vine, Instagram, Snapchat, your stock portfolio, Candy Crush, whatever. There’s no real purpose to it, just the irresistible urge to multitask.

It gets worse.

Chronic multitasking can lead to something called Directed Attention Fatigue or DAF. Here are just a few of the common symptoms:

  • Distractibility
  • Irritability
  • Impatience
  • Indecisiveness
  • Difficulty starting and finishing tasks

This doesn’t bode well for any job that requires any concentration. It’s why we feel mentally exhausted at the end of a work day that was mostly spent sitting in a chair. 

Strangely, we feel physically exhausted too. That’s because all that concentration actually requires a lot of physical energy. 

And, because multitasking is really a less efficient way to work, we end the day with more work to get done. Our brilliant solution is often to work more hours and do more multitasking.

Psychologists have compared DAF to ADD. Different conditions, same impact. Our smart phones and multi-monitor set ups are basically giving us ADD.



Quitting the Multitasking Habit

If you’re addicted to multitasking, you’re not going to like this part. 

Quitting isn’t easy.

Perhaps you’ve been telling yourself you can quit when you want to, but you just don’t want to. Sure, you’d know you’ve hit rock bottom if you fall into a fountain at the mall while texting, but you haven’t done that yet. Not like that lady on TV. 

There are some solutions. You need to be committed to make them work. It’s going to be difficult at first, but gradually you’ll feel better.

One solution is to change the way you design your workspace. Go minimalist. Cut out distractions like a second monitor. Clear off your desk to create a more calming environment. 

The next step is changing your work habits. 

Give yourself permission to focus on one task at a time. Keep other computer programs closed when they’re not in use. Check email and then close email. Check Facebook and then close Facebook. Concentrate on creating that PowerPoint deck and then move on to something else.

This works even if it’s only for a short duration. I will frequently set the timer on my smart phone for 13 minutes and tell myself to focus on a single task during that time. Something amazing often happens. By the end of the 13 minutes, I’m fully absorbed and want to keep going without interruption. 

No problem. Just hit the timer again for another go. Pretty soon I’m crushing tasks by giving one thing at a time my full attention.

The final solution is perhaps most important. You need to give your brain a break. 

Shut everything down. Take a walk to get some fresh air. Researchers have found that being outside in nature works wonders at counteracting the effects of Directed Attention Fatigue. 

Your brain will feel better after getting some rest. It will be more alert and focused. The great part about that is you can get more done while your co-workers continue to spin around on the hamster wheel called multitasking.

The big question is can you kick the habit? 


Helpful Links

Here’s a collection of links to help you expand your knowledge of multitasking and its addictive qualities. Some are useful and others are just for fun.

Three Critical Moments in Every Customer's Experience

There are three moments in every service experience that matter most.

They have an outsized impact on what your customers will remember. Get them right and you’re on way to establishing a loyal customer relationship. Fail in any of these moments and your service will quickly go from bad to worse.

These touch points are the Moments of Truth for your customer. As you read about each one, think about what your customers experience at each step along the way.

The Welcome

It’s probably not a surprise that first impressions are important, but why? 

One explanation is something called confirmation bias. A strong first impression, whether good or bad, can influence how a customer perceives the rest of their experience. 

Confirmation bias causes people to selectively filter information based on whether or not it fits with their beliefs. A customer might ignore a sub-par experience if they think you're great. On the other hand, the slightest misstep might be amplified in the eyes of a customer who is already angry.

You can read an example of how confirmation bias impacted two hotel stays here.

One challenge is the first impression doesn’t always occur at initial contact.

  • A hotel guest may be arrive exhausted after a long day of travel.
  • A customer calling a contact center may be annoyed by the time they reach a customer service rep because they had to navigate endless voice menu prompts and wait on hold for fifteen minutes.
  • A customer visiting a retail store may be in a sour mood if they had to drive around for ten minutes to find a parking space.

There are only two ways to win in these situations.

The first is to turn the customer around with an outstanding first impression. Good just won’t cut it when the customer is already upset.

The second is to try to influence a better first impression. This involves identifying additional factors that can be controlled. Here are some examples:

  • A hotel could offer an airport shuttle service to make arrivals easier.
  • A contact center could use a friendly person instead of IVR.
  • A retail store could negotiate designated parking spaces with their landlord.

These solutions aren't always possible, but top companies are always pushing to create a better customer experience.


The Peak

This Moment of Truth is the part of the experience that represents the greatest difference from the norm. It might be the very best thing that happened or the very worst. 

As I wrote in an article on the salesforce.com blog, we don’t notice good service. We only notice service that’s different than what we expect. And, it’s the point in the experience that represents the biggest difference that we remember.

It’s easy to win this Moment of Truth when we are presented with a hero opportunity. One of my favorite examples is this story where Morton’s Steakhouse surprised a customer at the Newark airport with a steak after the customer had jokingly tweeted to Morton’s that he was craving one.

But, what about service failures? Unless you overcorrect the problem, the service failure itself will be the peak experience.

Too often, the focus is on returning customers to normal. If you go out to eat with a friend and your steak isn't prepared properly, most restaurants will bring you a new one. Does that really fix things? Your dinner companion either has to eat their meal while you wait for yours or let their food get cold. 

Overcorrecting the problem would be finding a way to ensure you and your friend have a great dining experience, not just fixing the steak.


The Farewell

The last impression may also be the one that lasts the longest.

Think of it as the final chapter in a book. It’s not just the last step in the customer’s journey. It’s the experience that ties everything together and brings the experience to a close.

Consider what customers do after a service experience:

  • Decide whether or not they’re likely to return
  • Tell friends or family members
  • Take a survey
  • Write an online review
  • Share their experience on social media

If the lasting impression was favorable, all of those activities can reinforce the customer’s positive impression. The opposite is also true. An unresolved problem can fester and grow the more the customer thinks about it.


What Can You Do?

There are a few things you can do to identify and win these critical moments of truth.

First, experience your company’s first impression through your customers’ eyes. Are there opportunities to make it better? Easier? More welcoming?

Next, get obsessive about preventing service failures. A service failure will automatically become the peak experience if you can’t quickly resolve it.

Finally, try to end every experience on a good note. This means actively discovering and resolving problems before the experience is done.

Simplistic advice? Perhaps. But, it’s also easier said than done.