App Overwhelm And The Myth of Multitasking

Confused
Tom Solid

Tom Solid

Apps are terrific for creating order in your personal life and in your workflow. In our quest to go paperless, apps play a vital role by giving us ways to complete our work, store our documents, collaborate with others, and work across multiple devices, all without using paper. You can find apps to help you preserve family photos, convert documents to PDF, annotate, take notes by hand, convert handwritten notes to text, manage email, create calendars, keep task lists, and so much more!

As a matter of fact, according to Statista, (https://www.statista.com/…apps-available-in-leading-app-stores/) in 2017 there were 2.8 million apps for download on Google Play, and 2.2 million to choose from in the Apple Store!

There are literally millions of apps available that claim to organize your life and boost your productivity. Trying to analyze your tasks and responsibilities, and choosing apps to create a smooth system that will effectively manage those chores can leave your head spinning.

Our tendency is to give in to “shiny object syndrome” every time we see a new app with a must-have feature. Each app is set up to solve one problem, which leaves us trying to solve 23 problems with 23 apps, leading to app overload.

When we’re overloaded with apps in our workflow system, we have to switch back-and-forth between them in order to complete the tasks that the apps are there to simplify.

Another word for switching back-and-forth is multitasking, and— as a rule—human brains are notoriously bad at it.

IN THE WORLD OF PRODUCTIVITY FIRST, MULTITASKING IS AN INDUSTRY DARLING.

Go listen to the talk around the water cooler, or join in on an internet forum where people are discussing productivity, and it won’t be long before you hear heroic tales of high-achieving professionals who claim that multitasking is their secret weapon.

They have 20 tabs open on their computer, they talk on the phone and process email simultaneously, and they have a huge collection of the latest and greatest apps to help them get to the finish line.

BUT AS ALLURING AS THESE TALES ARE, SCIENCE TELLS A DIFFERENT STORY.

A study conducted by Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner (http://www.pnas.org/content/106/37/15583.short) set out to evaluate the cognitive control in media multitaskers.

The scientists separated media multitaskers into two groups: heavy media multitaskers and light media multitaskers. The two groups were then compared to each other in well-established cognitive control dimensions.

The report concluded, “Results showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set.”

There is more than one way to multitask.

The definition of multitasking we’re all familiar with is performing two or more tasks simultaneously. But multitasking also includes quickly switching from one task to another, and quickly performing more than one task in rapid succession.

In 2001 Joshua Rubenstein, PhD, Jeffrey Evans, PhD, and David Meyer, PhD, conducted an experiment in task-switching. (http://www.umich.edu/~bcalab/articles/CNNArticle2001.pdf)

The subjects in the experiments switched between tasks like solving math problems or classifying geometric objects. All of the participants lost time when they switched tasks. When the tasks got more complex, the subjects lost even more time.

The last study we’ll look at was conducted by Renata Meuter, PhD, and Alan Allport, PhD. They asked people who were bilingual to name numerals in their first or second language as they were randomly presented to them, based on the color that was behind the numeral. (For example if the background was red, they responded in their first language. If the background was blue, they responded in their second language.). (https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/…)

When random numerals were presented always in the first color, the response time was consistent. Also, when random numerals were presented always in the second color, the response time was consistent. But when numerals with backgrounds of both colors were randomly switched back and forth, the response time was slower than on trials where no switching was present.

SO HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO THOSE OF US WHO ARE BURIED APPS?

These studies show that switching tasks frequently causes us to lose time and fractures our attention. We even lose time moving our attention to things we’re familiar with, like the people reciting numerals in languages they knew.

Each app in our arsenal has different designs, colors, fonts, and functions. Even if we’re familiar with them, our brains still need time to adjust to the new task we’re focusing on. The apps we rely on to increase our productivity, might leave us spending more time task-switching without getting anything important done.

Then there are the apps we download to solve a specific problem, but one or more of the app’s functions overlaps with the functions of other apps we like to use. This leads to more distraction and confusion if we forget which app we’re using for which job, or we use separate apps to accomplish the same thing.

Apps we use to keep our workflow going aren’t a “set it and forget it” solution. Our apps need to be regularly maintained to keep working optimally and to clean out the old, out-of-date functions we no longer need.

APP OVERWHELM CAN LEAVE US DISTRACTED, LESS-PRODUCTIVE, AND STRESSED.

So what can you do to keep your apps working for you, instead of against you?

Take some time to look at your workflow. What are some of the things you do repeatedly that you could make into a system? What tasks do you do regularly that could be done quicker by using an app? What insights can you glean from colleagues?

All apps have reminders, alerts, and updates, but you don’t need to know about every one of them. Only add reminders or alerts to those things on your to-do list that are urgent. Some people remove push notifications completely.

You don’t need an app for everything you do. Try to keep the apps to the most crucial parts of your workflow where they will actually help the most.

Apps like Evernote, Slack, Trello, and Workflow can be used for their main advertised purpose, and also perform a few extras.

Apps like Zapier can set up a system for your favorite apps to communicate with each other. This automatic information-sharing between apps will eliminate redundant data entry into individual apps. This means when you update one app, the change will automatically register in another app.

Apps are not a once-and-done solution. To keep them working optimally you need to take a bit of time to clean out old tasks, files, and information that you no longer use. This will keep your systems running smoothly and keep you from feeling overwhelmed.

Now that you have an idea in mind of the apps you’ll need to stay productive, while avoiding app overload, you can research your options and select the apps that have the best functions and integrations for you.

Most workflows can benefit from building a good base of app solutions, and then adding a few custom apps to fit unique needs.

Here are some types of apps that can benefit almost anyone:

  • Project Management App
  • Communication Platform/App
  • Integration App
  • Email Management System
  • Collaborative Storage System
  • Calendar App

As you might have noticed, some of these apps have overlapping functions. So when you’re searching for an app to fill a specific need take note of all of the features the app has.

For example, a project management app like Trello can be used to track projects, collaborate on projects, store files, and communicate with colleagues. The fact that you can manage a project, and share files, and communicate with colleagues might make this the only solution you need for projects, communication, and collaboration.

But if you have special needs beyond these features, you can start customizing.

There are apps that perform specialized functions, making them useful to specific industries and for special projects. These might include:

  • Time Tracker
  • Private Storage System
  • Handwriting/Note-Taking App
  • Billing/Invoicing App
  • Estimating Software
  • Inventory Management Apps
  • Spreadsheet Creation Apps
  • Apps For Stock Traders
  • ...and many, many more

The key to remember here is not to get overwhelmed trying to find an app for everything in your workflow. Get a good base of operation, and customize only the essentials.

Conclusion​

We get really excited when we see the amazing apps available to us. With our desire to be the most productive humans ever, we overload our lives with more apps than we can effectively manage.

This leads us straight into the multitasking myth. We think we can use every app to solve every problem. As a result, we end up spending tons of time jumping from app to app and not getting important work done.

Hopping around from one app or tool to another actually does more harm than good. It fractures our attention, causes us to lose or forget important information, and wastes time and energy.

So do yourself a favor, leave multitasking to the amateurs. Optimize your workflow by simplifying your app collection.

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