How often have you found yourself reading emails, while doing homework with your children?
Or, taking important business calls while driving to your next meeting – and looking up to discover that you’re driving in the wrong direction? Perhaps, like me, you switch between tasks while waiting for something to download on your laptop.
The truth is that we’ve all done it.
When I was younger, like a true Generation X’er, I prided myself on being a ‘Multitasking Master’.
X’ers were really sold on the belief that performing more than one task simultaneously was key to optimising productivity and efficiency.
This belief was reinforced when Microsoft launched Windows in the mid-80’s. Suddenly, you could open multiple windows on screen – all dedicated to different tasks – and work on (and switch between) them all seamlessly. Multitasking had become mainstream.
Today, with the help of science, I’ve come to realise that there really is no such thing as multitasking – and (like carbs and sugar) my brain and I are better off without it.
Why does Multitasking have a Bad Rap?
Multitasking really means that we’re ‘switch-tasking’.
Because our brain can’t process similar functions (like reading a book and listening to music lyrics) simultaneously, it unconsciously switches between tasks, rather than trying to work on more than one task at a time. And, when we switch from one task to another, the transition between tasks takes time as our brain needs to shift attention. While this might feel seamless, each switch takes tenths of a second, which adds up when you’re switching back and forth frequently. Studies have shown that multitasking takes as much as 40% more time than focusing on one task only – which is why it’s inefficient, ineffective and impacts productivity.
Multitasking means more mistakes…
Because the brain never really focuses on any one task, multitaskers have more trouble tuning out distractions, make more errors, remember fewer details and take longer to complete tasks than those who work only on a single task at a time.
Most of us generally shift attention every 3 minutes. But, as it takes 15 to 18 minutes of concentrated work to enter what’s called a ‘flow state’ (the state of deep consciousness where we work at optimal levels), we’re unlikely to ever enter ‘flow’ – and perform better.
Multitasking affects brain health…
Evidence has shown that chronic multitasking can impair cognitive function, affect short term memory and increase anxiety.
A 2009 Stanford study into the effect on cognitive function found that multitaskers struggle to filter out irrelevant information, have greater difficulty switching between tasks and are less mentally organised. Even when chronic multitaskers focused only on one task, their brains were less efficient.
And, because switching rapidly between tasks spreads our attention thinly, tasks aren’t given the attention they deserve (or need) in order to be properly bedded down in memory, with the effect becoming more noticeable as we age.
Interrupted work increases anxiety levels. Researchers at UCI found that the heart rates of workers with access to email were consistently higher than those without email access. For me, this is as good reason as any to switch off email and social media alerts!
Multitasking inhibits creativity…
Forcing our brains to process multiple tasks in rapid succession rewires the brain, inhibiting creativity. When we spread our attention across too many tasks at once, we use up the brain’s working memory, leaving no space for truly creative ideas and concepts.
Also, as overload makes us more anxious, we start to rely on the more primitive ‘fight or flight’ area of the brain, instead of using the frontal lobe, which controls creativity and critical thinking.
This all makes us more likely to follow (rather than challenge) conventional thinking.
Multitasking stands in the way of making connections with others…
Jumping from task to task means that we never really spend enough time building deep connections with others. When we read the news, while talking to our children or respond to emails in meeting, we’re never truly in the moment. Our colleagues, families and friends sense this, which impacts our connection to them. Truly connecting with others is a source of deep human fulfilment – which no task can give.
Just Say No
Having realised the impact that multitasking has on my brain, health and life, I now try to focus on two simple rules that help me to ‘just say no’.
Prioritise only one thing each day.
Each day, try to focus on only one task at a time, for a length of time. This helps to avoid switch-tasking and opens up the possibility of entering a flow state. If you can’t set aside a whole day per task, try to set aside blocks of time (an hour or more is ideal) to work only on one thing.
Schedule (limited) time in your day for admin tasks – like answering emails – and switch off email and social media alerts. Try to limit unnecessary meetings.
For me, understanding that I don’t need to respond to everything has been life altering.
Do creative tasks in the early morning.
If you need to write a report, design a strategy or conduct an annual goal setting session, set aside time first thing in the morning, when you’re fresh and rested (and before your mind gets cluttered), to get creative tasks done.
Multitasking is the art of doing twice as much as you should, half as well as you could.
Go forth and focus (on one thing at a time!)
Georgina Barrick, MD of Cassel&Co and Insource.ICT/ IT Edge, all divisions of ADvTECH Resourcing (Pty) Ltd. Georgina has over 20 years of recruitment and executive search experience.