Multitasking (And Cake) is a Lie

I said FOCUS.

We have a lot of things to do on a daily basis. Agency life demands that we divide our attention between multiple clients as well as internal projects that need to be completed. We’ve heard and read a lot about multitasking and there are a lot of folks who are prone to get through the day this way. It seems like an effective way to get through our work.

Even in agency life multitasking is lie, much like that cake. The human mind works best by processing one task, one puzzle at a time. That’s simply the way humans are built. There is a caveat to this and it’s tied to how quickly the human mind can switch tasks.

When people talk about multitasking effectively, what they really talking about is micro-tasking.

Not to be confused with multitasking, micro-tasking is the ability to switch contexts, to pay attention to a series of things in rapid, short bursts. Micro-tasking is an essential skill in any workplace where the amount of interruption is high during the workday, such as (you guessed it) agency life. During the course of your day, you may have lots of different people coming by your desk to ask for different things. You may have a noisy or a distracting work environment. You may just have lots of work that requires you to shift focus very quickly. Micro-tasking is the ability to do that, to shift your attention very quickly, and to accomplish work in shorter bursts very frequently. And to give each task the attention it deserves.

If you’ve ever said or felt like you only need an hour or two of uninterrupted time to focus on something, but struggle to find that hour, then micro-tasking is what you’re looking for. You can be productive in just a few minutes – as long as you work with your brain effectively, not against it.

What does mirco-tasking look like? You are still only really doing one thing at a time satisfying your brain’s need to focus, but you change what that one thing is on a more frequent basis. The key is to leverage the power of working memory. Micro-tasking effectively means being able to load things from long-term memory into active working memory efficiently and quickly.

The best way to do this is to have a lot of a little different things in memory almost all the time. That sounds counterproductive, doesn’t it? This can be something as simple as a list of tasks and recipes on the notepad or in a binder. This can also be something as complex as the feigned memory palace/method of loci technique that Sherlock Holmes uses often on the BBC Sherlock series. (Side note: Did you know there’s a World Memory Championship?)

The key to micro-tasking (or practicing for that championship) is to use memory tags, the ability for your brain to recover information quickly.  In Dr. Oberauer’s research, working memory was powered by little markers, think of them as bookmarks or mental sticky notes, that the brain used to change attention quickly. However, memory tags are easily overwritten because active working memory is relatively small in the brain. This is why memory tags need to be explicitly defined in the physical world. A memory tag maybe something as simple as a keyword that tells you where you left off on any particular task. It could be a series of numbers or an image. It could be a screenshot or a browser tab left open. Whatever it is, it is the short-term association you need to retrieve that memory in that state from where you were.

The sensation you want to avoid or minimize is the feeling of asking yourself, what was I doing? What was I working on? That’s a sign that you are loading information from long-term memory and not using memory tags efficiently. That’s why the setting of memory tags is so important, so that you can instantly retrieve that information, that key to the mental state you’re in, as quickly as possible. If you find yourself asking, what was I doing, on more than a rare basis, that means that your memory text is not yet efficient. Perhaps your brain remembers things in a different way than you’re used to. Try different forms of media such as drawing, screenshots, maybe even humming or arranging items on your desk in a certain way.

By effectively using memory tags and bypassing the process where you need to recall what you were working on, you can shift focus more effectively and thus work more efficiently. You’ll be able to answer a co-worker’s question and then come back to whatever you were working on prior to the interruption without missing a beat. It’s a must learn skill in the agency setting and many more professions besides. If you can learn to micro-task AND learn to adapt to change, you will feel even more satisfied when change and multiple attention demands shake things up.

Do you practice micro-tasking already? Do you have a better process for focusing daily? Share your tips with us in the comments below.

Posted on September 25, 2014 in Agency Life

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About the Author

Chel works in the Integrated Services as a specialist who uses her knowledge of marketing technology, analytics, and their strategies to strengthen the agency. She spends her free time rucking, writing and/or gaming, creating art via canvas or photography and listening to JT and/or Black Lab. You're probably overly familiar with her love of Sherlock (BBC).
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