Personal experience (and science) have shown us that when we multitask, we don’t accomplish as much as we think we do, we make more mistakes, and we end up using more mental energy. It’s harder, slower, and the results aren’t as good.
There are several reasons why this is true, but I’d argue that the single most important one is that the purpose of our multitasking activities are conflicting with each other. Consider these common multitasking scenarios:
- Talking to a friend on the phone while driving: What is the purpose of the conversation? Let’s assume it is to have a meaningful conversation. What’s the purpose of driving? To transport you from one location to another. The purposes aren’t in alignment - in fact, they are actively competing with each other for your attention.
- Catching up on work email while watching TV: The purpose of catching up on email is to communicate with your co-workers / customers, and be in the loop. The purpose of watching TV is to be entertained, absorbed in a narrative - to escape. The purposes are in conflict with each other.
Multitasking these activities causes you to miss your exit, send emails with typos, have a shallow conversations, and not catch key nuances in the plot. When purposes conflict, you get the worst of both worlds.
But what happens when purposes compliment each other? Then they become a great candidate for multipurposing.
Multipurposing in Action
With multipurposing, the key is to be conscious of your purpose for each activity. When you have activities whose purposes compliment each other, you can "multipurpose" them together. Here are some examples from a typical week for me:
- Using a standing desk while working. My purpose for standing is to increase my overall physical wellness, and to keep my energy level up. My purpose for being at my desk is to get meaningful work accomplished. These two purposes compliment each other perfectly.
- Doing chores while listening to a podcast. My purpose for listening to podcasts is to learn something new, and be entertained. My purpose for doing housework is to get the house clean, with minimal mental energy invested. By pairing these two activities together, I don’t rush through the housework, so I do a better job, and I end up learning something new.
- Hiking with my daughter. My purpose for hiking is to be outside enjoying nature, getting exercise. My purpose for spending time with my daughter is to establish a deep, meaningful relationship with her. These purposes compliment each other as we discover new things together.
It's important to note that purposes differ for everyone: Standing might actually be a distraction for you, or you may want to be fully present when cleaning your house. If so, you’ll pair activities differently, and that's cool.
It’s also important to realize that purposes change over time. I used to listen to music while trail running, but I don’t any longer. Why? My purpose for listening to music used to be to give my mind a distraction, to keep me running longer. And my purpose for running was to get my heart rate up and run longer distances each time. They were a good match.
But over time, my purpose for running changed from greater distances to greater mindfulness of my body, and of being in the moment, on the trail: Engaging in a state of flow. My music and running purposes began to conflict, so I stopped listening to music.
I find that when I employ a multipurpose mindset, I end up learning new skills, being healthier, less stressed, and save money. I am able to do more with less - a promise that multitasking never delivers on.