Priorities and the Myth of Multitasking

In order to excel in any realm of life, whether it be a hobby, at work or with family, there is a need to prioritize. When I use the word ‘excel’ I mean really thrive and achieve great things. Mediocrity can be managed with little to no prioritization. A key component to this is not biting off more than you can chew. Instead of doing ten things and stumbling through them, identify three or four and really get after it. 

We frequently fall into the trap of attempting to take on too many things and consequently it all turns out average. You can’t be everything. Much of the misconception has to do with the delusion of multitasking. Despite advances in science (Adderall) it’s impossible to do ten things well.

For starters, we don’t have the time or energy. Further, multiple studies have proven the notion of multitasking to be little more than a hoax. The brain is incapable of processing multiple, simultaneous streams of information while preserving quality. Much of this depends on the complexity of the task or subject at hand, but regardless we’re never truly ‘multitasking.’ What’s actually taking place is our brain rapidly shifting focus from one item to the next.

Of course some have higher capacities than others to balance multiple, separate tasks or streams of information, but there is no such thing as true multitasking. It’s impossible to focus equally on multiple stimuli at once. When we attempt to do so, we experience a state of cognitive overload. In these situations, whether we immediately recognize it or not, the brain is unable to completely focus and process the necessary information. As a result, the quality of our work, memory, etc. becomes significantly compromised.

In a 2009 study at Stanford measuring cognitive control, frequent media multitaskers were measured against non-multitaskers in a variety of tests. As it turns out, the multitaskers were outperformed in nearly every task. One would imagine that they would do better in at least one area, but heavy multitaskers performed much worse than their counterparts in their ability to filter out irrelevant information, organize memories, and rapidly shift attention from one item to the next.[1] By whatever metric you choose, it’s much more efficient and productive to focus on one thing at a time.

Multitasking is often confused with a more appropriate word, prioritizing. Prioritizing is efficient. While you can’t do three things well at a single moment, you can do three things well if you prioritize your day/week and allocate your time appropriately. Choosing three or four things allows you to achieve a balance. Despite my deepest desire, there are not enough hours in the day to excel in ten different areas.

We should all set aside time to explore new and different interests and discover what we enjoy most. From there, it’s easier to determine the three or four things you really want to focus on. This can change as you age, as it should when significant others, family, etc. enter the picture. When you narrow in on a few main interests, your aspirations/dreams become much more attainable.

Once you have explored and focused in, a critical step will be learning to say no. You can’t do it all. People who can’t say no are always stretched too thin and unable to focus in on what they truly want. These are the people who are constantly stressed and claim they just don’t have enough time. As mentioned, you can’t do everything and you certainly can’t be everything to everyone. You can’t be afraid to let people down if you intend to make progress. True friends and the people you want to associate with will understand and respect your focus.

Average is easy and there’s no quicker path in that direction than having too many things on your plate. When you’re trying to take on ten things, none of it gets done well. You become a fragmented version of yourself, torn between too many facets in life. To become exceptional at whatever you have your sights on, whether that’s being a great artist, student, entrepreneur, parent, husband/wife, you name it, it requires dedication. Greatness demands that you focus full attention on the task at hand.

You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically, to say ‘no’ to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside. The enemy of the ‘best’ is often the ‘good.’
— Stephen R. Covey
Concentrate all your thoughts on the task at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.
— Alexander Graham Bell