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Multitasking is killing your productivity

Multitasking has been shown to diminish our ability to learn, stress us out, and kill our productivity. Here are some techniques to limit multitasking and help us regain our lost time.

hris Farley holding a phone receiver underneath his headband to keep it propped up to his ear in a scene from the film 'Black Sheep', 1996. Paramount Pictures/Getty Images


You begin the project your boss wants by end of the day and put on The Office for background noise. You get a good flow going just before receiving an email, and you start to write a response, but then a coworker hails you from across the open office right when an instant message pops onto your screen with a hilarious meme, and you try to help one coworker while letting the other know you appreciate the LOLs, but then you realize you can’t remember which of your 15 browser tabs were for the project and which were for the email, and now the phone is ringing.

Welcome to the modern American workday, a multitasking gauntlet from start to finish.

While managers view multitasking as a means to increase productivity, neuroscientists couldn’t disagree more. Decades of research has shown that the human brain wasn’t designed to multitask, and pushing workers to do so not only leads to stressful work environments but also kills productivity — not to mention profits.

Are you a multitasking junkie looking to sober up and de-stress? Here’s what you need to know.

The Office (U.S.)

Multitasking is for the birds (and computers)

The word “multitask” entered our lexicon with the advent of computers, and by the late ‘90s, it was adopted as business jargon to describe modern work habits. While the verb is perfectly apt for computers, where even early CPUs could execute multiple processes concurrently, it is less apt for people and our remarkable, if finicky, brains.

As Dan Harris told Big Think, “Multitasking is a computer-derived term. Computers have many processors. We have only one processor. We literally neurologically cannot do more than one thing at a time.”

Instead of multitasking, the human brain performs a function called “task switching.” Summarizing the research, the American Psychological Association explains task switching as follows:

The human “executive control” processes have two distinct, complementary stages. They call one stage “goal shifting” (“I want to do this now instead of that”) and the other stage “rule activation” (“I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this”). Both of these stages help people to, without awareness, switch between tasks. That’s helpful. Problems arise only when switching costs conflict with environmental demands for productivity and safety.

For example, you can easily hold a conversation, drink a cup of coffee, and walk at the same time. That’s because two of those acts, walking and drinking, require little focus, allowing your brain to dedicate its processing power to the conversation. (Even then, consider the times you’ve spilled coffee on yourself because the mouth hole shifted slightly to the left.)

On the other hand, when two activities require focus, your brain must disengage the neurons for one task (goal switching) and then fire up the neurons for the other task (rule activation), and it must do this every time your attention changes. This is why the modern office environment previously illustrated is so inefficient.

Multitasking has been shown to diminish our ability to learn, stress us out, waste our productive time, and add 50 percent more errors to our work. One study estimated the global loss from multitasking could be as much as $450 billion a year.

When you consider losses beyond the office, such as texting and driving, the results are even more devastating.

While humans obviously lose to computers, we aren’t even the best multitaskers — sorry, task switchers — in the animal kingdom. Dr. Sara Letzner and Dr. Onur Güntürkün from Ruhr-Universitaet-Bochum tested the task switching abilities of people and pigeons. Although the sample size was small, the pigeons outperformed the humans and switched tasks 250 milliseconds faster.

Woman stressed | Energicpic.com, Creative Commons

Recovering your productivity and health

The alternative to multitasking is, obviously, to focus on one task at a time. Productivity guru Cal Newport calls this approach “deep work,” but it also goes by flow and monotasking. Whatever the label, the goal is the same: Develop techniques to keep your focus on important tasks and exclude the myriad of lesser stimuli vying for your attention. Such techniques include:

Schedule your day. Schedule your day to dedicate the hours you are most productive to important work. For most people, this will be in the morning after breakfast but before the afternoon slump. Then schedule time for less important work during your less productive hours. Those emails aren’t going anywhere.

List priorities. Write out the day’s priorities before you start work or the night before. List them in order from most important to least, and check them off as you go. By committing yourself right away to your most important task, you’ll help maintain your focus and keep to the schedule you set out above.

Time management. There are many ways to manage your time to foster focus. One popular method is the Pomodoro technique. With it, you schedule your work around 30-minute chunks of time, 25 minutes dedicated to a single task and a five-minute break. You can learn more about it here.

Shut out distractions. It’s not just enough to ignore distraction; you’ve got to shut them out. If your distractions come from fellow co-workers, a nice, big pair of headphones will provide the visual equivalent of a “Do Not Disturb” sign. If they don’t take the hint, then…maybe an actual “Do Not Disturb” sign? A bit blunt, true, but it’ll get the job done.

Tune out. If you need background noise, don’t play anything that draws your attention away from your work. You may think you’ve seen The Office enough to ignore it, but the truth is that you will always be keeping an ear open for your favorite bits (Parkour!). Go with music instead.  Again, nothing that pulls at your attention with a swelling urge to sin karaoke. Instrumental music will serve you best. Alternatively, you could see if a background noise generator works for you.

Blacklist the Internet. Only visit the parts of the Internet that are required to complete your work. Stay away from social media, news sites, and all wikiholes. If need a helping hand, there are several programs that can blacklist the less productive parts of the Internet.  

Take breaks. Like any part of your body, your brain gets tired the more you work it. Taking breaks will revitalize your mind so you can keep going strong. To get the most from your breaks, be sure to disconnect from work entirely. Grab a snack, socialize with a coworker, read a book, or enjoy the wisdom of Nick Offerman.

Develop mindfulness. Mindfulness, productivity, and monotasking go hand-in-hand. As you practice mindfulness, you’ll be able to better keep your attention from straying toward other projects, after-work activities, and fears about performance, improving your productivity and follow-through.

Stay healthy. You don’t need yet another article telling you to eat healthy and exercise, so let’s make this short. A healthy mind and body are key to giving you the energy and positive emotions to push yourself to finish the workday strong.

___________

All of this is, of course, easier said than done. Focus isn’t easy. Distraction is what our minds do, and it isn’t helped by our always-on, instant-results culture. To implement these changes, you may need to have a difficult talk with your manager about the benefits of monotasking. But the benefits to your productivity and work-life balance will be well worth the effort.

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A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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