The Myth of Multitasking

Want to get more done? Stop Multitasking. Want to do better work? Stop Multitasking.

Person texting while driving - dangers of multitasking
Mutitasking – Texting while driving
Photo by Roman Pohorecki from Pexels

Do you struggle with too many tasks and projects and don’t know how on earth you’ll ever get everything done? My advice: Stop multitasking!

Except for routine tasks, we humans are not capable of it, at least the overwhelming majority of us. In fact, multitasking is a misnomer. The word suggests that we do two tasks at the same time, when in fact our brain switches back and forth between two tasks. We just don’t notice it because it happens so darn fast.

You could argue that it doesn’t matter as long as you get your work done. But that is exactly where multitasking or the perception of multitasking turns into a problem. Our brain only has a limited capacity for processing data. The more complex a task, the more data needs to get processed, the more difficult it is for the brain to switch, the more time it takes.

If you imagine your brain as a multi-laned highway, all lanes are occupied with data that is needed to tackle the one task at hand, let’s say writing an email. If you add a second task, for example answering the phone, you split the data highway into two. Some lanes are occupied with data to write the email, but some lanes are now used to speak on the phone. Your attention is divided, your brain switches back and forth between the two tasks, and that has consequences.

The obvious result is that you may lose track of what the caller is saying because your brain was more engaged with the email. You may find that you made mistakes in your email because …. you get the idea.

Multitasking for most of us is only an illusion that impacts our performance, quality of work, and quite often also the quality of our lives. Instead of getting done more our brain is forced to switch back and forth between the two tasks, which essentially slows us down. An article of the American Psychological Association describes several experiments on task-switching. The goal was to determine the cost in time for switching tasks, and to assess how complexity or familiarity of tasks would impact the time of switching and productivity.

“Although switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks.”

What is even more important is the fact that […] “multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error” and it can cause mental blocks that […] “cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.”

In short, the mind and brain are not designed for heavy-duty multitasking because it negatively impacts our mental processing ability.

Remember those moments when you were immersed in your work, the phone rang, you picked up and… the great idea that you just had disappeared? You may not even have started talking, but by switching from one task to another, you lost it. And starting where you left off usually takes some time. You need to connect the dots again in order to continue.

What could this mean for you and your work? If you have something simple to do like putting dishes into the dishwasher, loading your washing machine, and at the same time talking with a friend on the phone – keep on doing it. I don’t think it will either impact your conversation nor the outcome of the laundry or dishes. But if you are working on something complex like writing a blog, doing some research, or writing a proposal, you may want to reconsider. Focusing on one task and finishing it not only gets stuff off your To-Do-list, but it also gives you a feeling of accomplishment.

Especially if you feel overwhelmed with the amount of work you have to do, take some time to plan. Write down what you have to do and then decide when you will do it. I know, it may sound more like additional work instead of helping you to get stuff off of your To-Do-list. But the benefit of this exercise is that you can use quiet and undisturbed time for the really heavy-lifting and do the easy stuff when you have to expect or deal with distractions.

Give it a try. For the next couple of days focus on one task at a time. Pick a time that will allow you to concentrate 100 percent on it. How does it make you feel? Did you get the task done quicker? Did you enjoy this uninterrupted focus time? How did it feel getting it completely done? Something like this?

Two women jumping with joy
Photo by Jill Wellington from Pexels

I can’t wait to hear from you. Until next time,
Regine

One thought on “The Myth of Multitasking

  1. Right on, as always. Hope you and Bodo are healthy and safe! All is well here….I am staying home and socially isolating!

    Love, Carla

    >

    Like

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