Multitasking – we’ve all heard of it, and we’ve all done it.
But is it really as effective as we think it is?
In spite of the appearance that multitasking can help you accomplish more in less time, countless research shows that doing multiple things at the same time can actually work against you.
The misconception of multitasking
Despite what we might think and feel, it is actually better to work on one task at a time, giving it your full attention.
By doing so, you can increase efficiency of that given task, reduce stress and cognitive load by doing so, and thereby enhance your overall performance.
The biggest misconception of multitasking is that we can perform the same tasks at the same time effectively. While executing all given tasks is definitely doable, the question at hand is whether its in fact, effective work.
Instead of performing multiple tasks simultaneously, multitasking is nothing more than just switching rapidly between different tasks. As a result, you are forcing the mind to scatter from one thing to another, without real closure.
As Cynthia Kubu, PhD states, “When we think we’re multitasking, most often we aren’t really doing two things at once. But instead, we’re doing individual actions in rapid succession, or task-switching.”
The negatives to multitasking
There are plenty of studies that show that mult-tasking might be doing more harm to us than good.
- Decreased efficiency and productivity — Studies illustrate that when multi-tasking, our brains are simply switching gears back and forth. This is inefficient for more complex tasks that require active attention and it makes us more susceptible to making errors.
- Elevated stress levels — Whether we feel it directly or not, multitasking can be quite stressful on us. The constant shift of attention and focus can cause your brain to feel anxious and mentally exhausted easier. And when we have a higher sense of exhaustion, this can more quickly lead to burnout.
- Impaired memory — We also have a harder time to remember when multitasking. When we try to do multiple things at once, our brain has a harder time encoding and retrieving information. This leads to higher tendency of forgetfulness.
- Reduced creativity — Multitasking can limit our ability to generate new ideas and think critically. By trying to focus on different things at the same time, we limit the mental capacity and flexibility to engage in divergent thinking.
- Greater distraction — When we are multitasking, switching from one gear to the next, since our attention is divided, it makes it harder to place our ful, focusedl attention to one thing. For example, in a study, where participants were asked to do some minor tasks during a driving simulation, they found those who were multitasking had poorer driving performance. This is no different from more menial tasks such as ‘media tasking’ such as listening to music and scrolling through social media at same time. Studies showed that participants were media-multitasked were more distracted, which affected them later as they tried to focus their attention when doing even one task.
- Bad for the brain — It’s not just a matter of behavior either. Our brains look differently when multitasking as well. For example, one study at the University of Sussex revealed that regular multi-taskers showed to have lower brain density in the region of the brain for for empathy, cognitive control and emotional control. Additionally, in another study by the University of London, those who mulitasked scored lower in IQ levels, demonstrating parallel levels to that of people who stayed up all night. Some scores were so extreme that it showed that multi-tasking men lowered their scores to the average range of an child.
How to prevent multitasking
- Set priorities —Make a to-do list and prioritize tasks according to their importance. Work on the most important task until it is complete before moving on. Leveraging things like the prioritization method
- Focus on one task at a time — As mentioned earlier, multitasking is nothing more than ‘task-switching.’ So in reality, you are just distributing your attention to different things. As such, get in the habit of focusing on one task at a given time. Use timers such as the Pomodoro technique to give yourself a specific timeframe to work on one thing only. Then when the alarm goes off, move onto the next.
- Schedule breaks — Your brain needs to rest and recharge. Use breaks to do something that helps you relax and de-stress. Take a walk, step outside for a few minutes, and/or meditate. Don’t try to bust everything out at the same time, otherwise you’re putting too much strain on the brain.
- Minimize interruptions — The easiest way to prevent yourself from getting distracted at a given time you’re focusing is to turn off all notifications from your phone or computer. Even if there are messages coming in for work, dedicate specific blocks of period to work on all you need, updating your status to let people know you’re in focus mode. The last thing you need are distractions pulling at your attention.
- Use time blocking — As just mentioned, one way to stay focused is to block out specific periods of time in your calendar to complete a given task. This will help to avoid temptation and structure your habits to dedicate specific periods to actually ‘do’ instead of ‘dabble.’