Think You Can Multitask?
As a kid, I loved playing chess with my siblings. We’d pull out the chessboard, set up our pieces, and spend the next half hour or hour playing a few games.
When we played, we were fully absorbed in the game. We focused our full and complete attention on analyzing the board, figuring out our next move, and trying to stay one step ahead.
I recently picked up chess again last year. Now in my mid-30s, I’ve been reconnecting with some things I enjoyed as a kid (music, art, chess).
But these days, instead of playing chess on a physical board with my siblings, I play on my iPhone or iPad using a chess app. And playing on my phone or tablet allows me to play chess and try to do a number of other things at the same time.
If you pass by my work computer on any day, you’ll see I have 10 or more tabs open on my computer. I’m usually trying to answer emails, plan my next trip, draft a memo, work on a presentation, and read the news at the same time.
It feels like I’m being productive by doing a lot of things at once, but research has shown our brains aren’t made for multitasking.
Multitasking may feel good and give us the impression we’re being productive — but our brains aren’t designed to do multiple things at once. Although it feels like we’re getting more done, multitasking just results in doing each task at a substandard level.
Multitasking feels good though, doesn’t it? It’s like when applying for a job online and hitting send. You feel you’ve just accomplished something, and that the recruiter is reading your resume the moment after you hit submit. In reality, your application just went into a black-hole and no one is looking at your resume.
Multi-tasking lets us check things off our to-do list and makes us feel like things are happening — which feels good.
The alternative? Sitting down and prioritizing what needs to get done and then focusing on one item at a time. For most of us, trying to multitask feels better and seems easier than forcing ourselves to prioritize and set goals for the day.
What should we do instead of trying to multitask? We need to pick the few things that will really help us achieve our goals for the day. Doing simple, sometimes meaningless tasks keeps us busy and can feel good, but often takes our attention away from getting the really important stuff done (because that takes time, focus, and prioritization).
Playing chess finally convinced me I can’t multitask well — none of us can. When I first started playing chess using an app, I would play chess, while also checking email, cooking a meal, writing an article, calling my parents, or a host of other things. And every time I tried to play chess and do something else, I lost.
When you’re multi-tasking and it’s not a win-lose situation like chess, it can feel you can do everything all at once, and do a good job. But in chess, where the game is win or lose, a careless move or lack of awareness will cost you the game.
It became increasingly clear to me that although I was playing chess and doing other things in reality; I was just going through the motions with chess and not focusing on tactics and strategy. And when that happened, I would always lose.
Now, when I play chess, that’s all I do. I’ll focus my attention for a 5,10, or 30 minute game, and that’s all I allow myself to do. While I still don’t always win (it is chess after all!) it’s not only much more enjoyable to just focus on the game, it also allows me to get into a flow, and I’m much more likely to do well in my game when that happens.