What Is Task-Shifting—& How Does It Hold You Back?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Hyperfocus" by Chris Bailey. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is task-shifting? How is it different from multi-tasking?

We often talk about multitasking—doing more than one task at a time. While we certainly do this, we probably are engaged far more often in task-shifting—rapidly switching our focus from one task to another. Productivity expert Chris Bailey explains task-shifting and provides two reasons why it lowers productivity.

Read on to learn about task-shifting and its impact on success.

Task-Shifting

Bailey suggests a certain reason why our brains are ill-prepared for modern-day success: We love to task-shift.

What is task-shifting? When people say they are multitasking at work, they’re usually referring to task-shifting. Multitasking complex tasks is biologically impossible: Our working memory is only large enough to fit a single complex task. What most people think of as multitasking is actually task-shifting: You’re not focusing on multiple cognitively demanding tasks simultaneously but switching your attention rapidly between them. [Shortform note: One article notes that people use the term multitasking to refer to three separate activities: classic multitasking (performing multiple tasks at the same time), rapid task switching (doing one task right after another), and interrupted task switching (switching between tasks before completing either). Bailey’s definition of task-shifting is closest to interrupted task switching, which the article explains is the most distracting way to multitask.]

Bailey suggests that people love task-shifting for logical reasons. Our ability to quickly notice new changes in our environment kept us alive in ancient times: The quicker we noticed something new, the quicker we could assess whether it was a potential threat and act on it. Therefore, Bailey argues, our brains evolved a “novelty bias”: They release dopamine whenever we do something new. So in modern times, whenever you switch to a new task under the guise of multitasking, you receive a hit of dopamine. These hits of dopamine cause task-shifting to feel good and productive, so people love it. (Shortform note: Our novelty bias may also explain why your brain is more likely to remember new things. Moonwalking with Einstein suggests using this to your advantage by imagining things you want to remember in new, novel ways.)

This love of task-shifting negatively affects modern-day success because task-shifting doesn’t work: Research shows that task-shifting makes individual tasks take 50% longer. (Shortform note: Even worse, in Brain Rules, John Medina notes that multitaskers make as many as 50% more errors.) 

Why Task-Shifting Lowers Your Productivity

But why, exactly, does task-shifting negatively impact productivity? We’ve already seen one reason: When you’re paying attention to too many things, you risk overloading your attention. Bailey suggests two more reasons based on your brain’s biology.

#1: You don’t encode your memories properly.   

Bailey explains that when you’re focused on a task, you use your hippocampus—the brain region responsible for storing and recalling memories. But when you multitask and task-shift, you use your basal ganglia. The basal ganglia is the brain region responsible for performing habits and learning skills.

Since you’re not using the brain area devoted to memory, you can’t encode what you’re doing properly, so you don’t remember it as well. Bailey argues that this harms productivity because you don’t remember your mistakes. If you don’t remember the mistakes you made on a task the first time, you’re far more likely to make those same mistakes again. 

(Shortform note: Make It Stick explains further exactly how different brain regions control different types of tasks. The more you practice a skill, the stronger and faster the brain signals become to perform that skill. When it becomes a habit, your brain links the motor skill with the cognitive action so that they fire off simultaneously and subconsciously. So instead of using the hippocampus, which consolidates new information and memories, your brain recodes the habit in the basal ganglia, where other subconscious acts originate.)

#2: Your brain doesn’t forget tasks quickly.

Bailey explains that when you stop doing a task, you don’t forget it immediately. Rather, tasks leave behind mental residue. In other words, they remain in your working memory for some time before they eventually disappear. So if you stop doing Task A and immediately move onto Task B, you can’t totally focus on Task B. Task A still occupies some portion of your working memory. 

When you constantly shift between the same tasks, you never stop doing any one of them long enough for its mental residue to completely dissolve. Since you’re always thinking about the last task you stopped doing, you’re never able to focus fully on a single task—which makes completing these tasks take longer. 

In this way, task-shifting negatively impacts productivity. 

(Shortform note: In Deep Work, Newport recommends that you reduce this mental residue when writing emails by articulating all the essential information. He argues that doing so closes the mental loop and prevents mental residue from accumulating. If true, closing the mental loop on other tasks should eliminate or reduce the mental residue they leave behind. Complete tasks before moving on from them, and close the mental loop by asking yourself: Have I done everything I can do right now to complete this task?)

What Is Task-Shifting—& How Does It Hold You Back?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Chris Bailey's "Hyperfocus" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Hyperfocus summary:

  • Why it's just as important to learn how to manage your attention, along with your time
  • Why you still feel tired no matter how many breaks you take
  • Strategies for managing your attention for better productivity and creativity

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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