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Multitasking: Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be

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Feel an urge to check Facebook one more time before diving into this story? Do it. A little hungry? Grab a bite to eat. Use the restroom if that’s on your mind. Cold? Grab a blanket.

OK, now that those things are out of the way, let’s talk about distraction. Distraction can be a most expensive reason that people get stuck in their financial lives, and in its worst form, it can put a hard ceiling on your lifetime earnings.

Think about all the various ways that people and things can interrupt you during a day. Text messages. Facebook posts. Tweets. Rings. Blinking web ads. All these gadgets and all these noises, all competing for your attention like a room full of kindergarteners who want the balloon you are holding over your head. The average American worker now gets only 11 continuous minutes to work on a task before an interruption. Then, it can take 25 minutes before they return to the original task. That’s why it’s taking you 20 minutes instead of three minutes to read this story.

Distraction doesn’t just slow you down, however. It makes you dumb. Josh Waitzkin of The British Institute of Psychiatry says that checking your email while performing another creative task decreases your IQ in the moment 10 points. That’s the equivalent of not sleeping for 36 hours — or double the impact of smoking marijuana. This is one reason car salesmen or mortgage brokers try to distract consumers during transactions. It’s hard to catch hidden fees when you can barely pay attention to all the papers flying by. And you’ll never notice overcharges in your monthly bills if you pay them while watching TV or talking to the kids.

Distractions like these are a day-to-day concern, but lack of focus can have far broader impacts on your life. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, talks about a longer-term kind of distraction that she calls “drift.” In drift, someone plans to enter an MBA program but puts it off temporarily because the timing isn’t right at work…and then a big European vacation comes up…and then a wedding comes up…and suddenly our would-be MBA feels too old to go back to school.

The Multitasking Myth

Distractions keep you from getting today’s tasks done today, but are an even bigger problem when they keep you from where you should be going tomorrow. As we learned when discussing the Greedy Algorithm (which is part of the Getting Unstuck series), many folks don’t really have a debt problem, they have an income problem. Solving that problem long-term requires that you make focused investments in gaining new, sellable skills. You can’t do that when life has you drifting here and there.

The age of multitasking continually attacks our ability to focus, both on today and on our careers. Plenty of research shows that, with few exceptions, humans aren’t really capable of multitasking. They are instead “rapid toggling between tasks.” That’s why we can’t drive and text at the same time — you are either doing one or the other. Despite this knowledge, however, the National Safety Council estimates that 1.6 million accidents annually are blamed on cellphone use while driving. People have a lot of trouble resisting distraction.

In fact, most self-identified multitaskers are dangerously delusional, suggests a study conducted by StanfordUniversity in 2009. In a series of cognitive tests administered under rigid conditions, multitaskers repeatedly fared *worse* than their counterparts. In one test, subjects were shown both letters and numbers, then given varying instructions – sometimes to decide if the numbers were odd or even, sometimes if the letters were consonants or vowels. Multitaskers often failed because they couldn’t focus on the task at hand – the number-seekers were distracted by the letters, and vice versa.

“They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing,” researcher Eyal Ophir told the Stanford University news. “The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.”

Another researcher, Clifford Nass, was more blunt. “They are suckers for irrelevancy,” he said. “Everything distracts them.”

Combating Distraction

You’ll never get ahead in your career if you can’t sort through what’s important and what’s less important. Suckers for irrelevancy also tend to buy things they don’t need when they could be digging themselves out of debt instead.

Are you a sucker for irrelevancy? There’s only one way to fix your problem of drift or distraction:

Practice focus. Start small. Re-read this story without reading an email or an update. Take five minutes to sit still. Then, take 10 minutes today and take steps toward professional development. Tomorrow, take 15 minutes, and so on. In a world so tortured by short attention spans, people who learn to focus are almost guaranteed a seat at the head table.

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