The “Doorway effect” of multitasking in personal productivity.
How to multitask without hurting your performance?
When you move across a door from one room to another, you tend to forget things in that fraction of a second that you just had in your mind clearly just before crossing the door.
The most annoying scenario that just every one of us went through many times in our life. The neuroscience study has an explanation for this. It is called the “doorway effect”.
Forgetting things when you move from one room to another.
The doorway effect or “location-updating effect” is a known psychological event where a person's short-term memory declines (or turns to null) when passing through a doorway moving from one location to another when it would not if they had remained in the same place.
According to the neuroscience study (and an old psychological explanation), the human brain is designed to hold memory for a very short time. Author Cal Newport calls it “Working-memory”. At the same time, the brain is very good at holding information very brightly for a period of time, that is when you working on a particular task.
During this time, the brain holds the information about the task and all other closely-related information in reach.
Limited cognitive space
Why would we have a memory system set up to forget things as soon as we finish one thing and move on to another? Because we can’t keep everything ready-to-hand. 1
Assume your brain has a lot of shelves and boxes. Every box contains similar or related information. The relation (connection) factors to the topic, emotion, or any context. You pick a task, your brain just opens a box and spread across the table, and starts to work on it along with the new information and goal.
Because of the limited cognitive space capacity of your brain, you need close the current box if you want to open another box in order to give the table space (your working memory) for the contents of this new box. Once you opened the new box, the memory of the old box usually diminishes or vanishes in some cases.
This is the reason why your short-term memory is so powerful when compared to your long-term memory. To keep things in your long-term memory, you need to open that particular box contents (which you need to remember for a very long) should be accessed frequently.
In short, the human brain is designed to think inside the box.
Note: Now you know how SRS (Spaced-repetition system) for learning works most effectively.
Trigger for Switching boxes
You don’t need to put effort into closing a box and opening another. The brain does that for you even without any conscious commands.
Your sensory inputs trigger this process of switching boxes. The moment your eyes see another room, your body feels the temperature change, and your ears hear something, these senses trigger your brain to switch boxes in the blink of an eye. (The same concept applies to distractions too).
Doorway effect in context switching
As switching boxes happens on autopilot, it is not much of a strain for the brain. But if you try to do it intentionally, then it puts a heavy load on your brain. That is you it is so hard to remember what you forget when you cross the door.
Not only moving from one room to another trigger this effect. Moving from one contextually connected project (or set of tasks) to another triggers the same effect. Because still, your sensory organs are feeding the changes to your brain. Opening your email inbox, while you peruse through your projects notes in your notes app causes the same effect as switching rooms physically.
Changing from one window (or an app) to another contextually disconnected window (or an app) like a social media feed is equivalent to switching rooms (in terms of the digital world).
Let’s say you are trying to write a book or doing your taxes, now you immediately switch to your browser to check a ticket for your next trip. The change in context triggers the ‘doorway effect’ which causes your brain to wrap the contents of your book-writing ideas to a box and put it away to free up your cognitive space to load information about the trip you’re planning.
This type of context-switching takes a heavy toll on your cognitive performance or at least heavily diminishes your creative energy.
Context switching is not bad, just your brain is not designed for that. To gain optimal performance from your brain, just wrap up your current task/project before opening another.
Note: Interstitial journaling is the best way to handle these switching effectively.