Multitasking Diminishes Willpower

Aldous Huxley once wrote that humans have an insatiable appetite for distraction. Yes, this is true; we are genetically wired to be curious – we do look at every ping, ding and flash that catches our attention. We just have to dig in! And thank God for that - It’s why we humans are apex on the food chain (unless it’s true what Southpark said about cows).

The problem is, now we’ve invented these devices with software that constantly ping and ding… forcing us (or so we falsely believe) to multitask – jump from thing to thing to thing throughout a day almost without our own consent.

Here’s the problem. Multitasking requires you to hold a lot of information in your working memory, which is controlled by a part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex (PFC).

The PFC is also responsible for willpower, and for keeping fear and anxiety in check.

Multitasking increases the “cognitive load” on the PFC, overwhelming it and effectively killing its ability to hold strong willpower and keep fear/anxiety at bay (the feeling of being overwhelmed).

By the way, what we typically refer to as “multitasking” is not multitasking. Very few humans can actually churn two or more thought processes in their PFC simultaneously. If you are in that 1% minority, chances are you’ve already been tapped on the shoulder to become a fighter pilot – the government heavily recruits these rare people for this role. The other 99% (me included) are really just jumping from thought process to thought process which places heavy taxes on a clearly finite resource of cognitive energy (regardless of how many cups of Starbucks you chug). This tax is formally called ‘cognitive switch tax’. Google it. Psychologists have a lot of bad bad things to say about it (and so should company owners who care about productivity and anyone else with interest to live a highly deliberate and productive life).

So think of it this way… “Multitasking”, physical pain, emotional pain, busy-life times, crowded days, and clutter in general of any kind all diminish one’s ability for maintaining willpower. The more you have going on at the same time, the less your willpower.

Calm and single-point focus on one item at a time (task/project/problem) literally increases your willpower. Why not take advantage of that?

Turn off the pings, dings, reminders and hide the incessant email inbox when you work.

Calmly focus on one thing at a time to get more done; it works. And the best part is, it’s a choice.