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Why Multitasking Doesn’t Work (and What to Do Instead)

Why Multitasking Doesn’t Work (and What to Do Instead)

In the business world, productivity is everything, which means that many will try to boost their productivity however they can. Many swear by multitasking, or the practice of juggling tasks to keep themselves fresh and productive. However, evidence shows they are mistaken. We’ll go into why, and offer a few more effective alternatives.

The Fallacy of Multitasking
Many people believe that multitasking is the art of working on two things simultaneously. You may even be one of these people. If so, I have some bad news for you: multitasking is a myth.

Seriously, it doesn’t exist. Let’s try a brief experiment. Start fiddling with something on your desk as you read this blog:

The human brain isn’t wired to work that way, no matter what you might believe. It isn’t that men or women are better at it, or younger people are more practiced at it… it just isn’t a thing, at least, not in the way a lot of people interpret it.

When you ask someone what multitasking is, they’ll probably summarize it as some variation of “doing multiple things at once.” The problem is, science has shown that the human brain literally doesn’t work that way - it is designed to commit to a singular cognitive task at a time. What is perceived as “multitasking” is simply the brain switching from one task to another.

One of the reasons we’re so inclined to defend our multitasking habits is because we appear to see so many examples of it in real life. After all, Billy Joel made an entire career out of singing and playing the piano at the same time, didn’t he? It also feels good to multitask, quite literally. As we “multitask,” we’re likely switching between many, bite-sized tasks. Between checking email, updating social media, planning where to go for lunch, and all the other easy decisions we make everyday, there’s a release of dopamine.

This hormone is the brain’s reward for a job well done… and it wants more.

Due to this, we are spurred to continue jumping from mini-task to mini-task, and we feel like we’re accomplishing a lot (when we really aren’t). This is why social media can be so addictive, and why so many of us compulsively check our emails.

Why This Doesn’t Work
There are assorted reasons that multitasking isn’t exactly good for our productivity, or even our physical well-being.

Multitasking isn’t actually any more productive.
In fact, your tasks can ultimately wind up taking longer.

Let’s say that you need to accomplish two tasks, A and B, which take 45 minutes and 90 minutes respectively, or 135 minutes, or 2 hours and 15 minutes in total. Now, consider how these tasks would break up if we multitasked and switched between each task every 15 minutes and 30 minutes, respectively.

You get to work on task A, and then B, and then A again, switching back and forth until each task is completed. Since multitasking doesn’t make you work any faster, you still take 135 minutes to complete both tasks. Strike one against multitasking.

Now, for strike two, let’s examine how these tasks would have progressed during that time. Doing these tasks one at a time would mean that A would be done in 45 minutes and B done 90 minutes after that, totaling 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Multitasking, on the other hand, changes things. If you switch between them the way we established above, by the time the 45 minute mark rolled around, you’d have only worked on task A for 15 minutes and B for 30, meaning that each would only be one-third done in the same amount of time it would take to complete one task if focusing on it exclusively. Continuing this pattern, instead of completing A in 45 minutes, you’d be done with it by minute 105, a full hour later than it would have been finished otherwise.

Multitasking stresses us out.
Switching our trains of thought so violently is exhausting, much like most anything violent tends to be. This is largely because switching tasks in such a fashion encourages the production of cortisol in the brain, otherwise known as the stress hormone. More specifically, cortisol is the stress hormone that lingers for extended periods of time in the body, as opposed to short-term hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine (which are what trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response). As a result, not only are we tiring out our brains, reducing our ability to handle stress, we are actively producing the hormone that produces it.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, that’s hardly the half of it:

Multitasking is actually bad for the brain.
Research has repeatedly shown that attempting to multitask could potentially be the source of assorted mental health issues, or at least have some correlation to them. For one, multitasking can greatly diminish cognitive abilities. One study demonstrated that multitasking dropped the IQ scores of adult subjects enough to bring them to the level of an eight-year-old, much like a sleepless night has been shown to do.

It gets worse - other studies have shown that there is an association between multitasking habits and a less dense area in the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex. This area is responsible for a few key human functions: empathy, as well as cognitive and emotional control capabilities. While the jury is still out on whether multitasking causes this damage, or those with the lack of brain density are simply more prone to multitask, neither is a good sign for the habit.

Furthermore, in addition to one’s intelligence quotient, one’s multitasking habits have also been shown to stunt one’s EQ as well, or their emotional intelligence. EQ covers key considerations in the office environment, including awareness of oneself and social relationships. Testing the EQ levels of over a million people, emotional intelligence training firm TalentSmart found that over 90% of industry performers have high EQs.

In short, multitasking actually makes our capacity to do quality work suffer, as our stamina, cognition, and memory are all affected. Without peeking, can you remember which musical artist was referenced earlier in this blog? If you can’t, is it possible you may have been multitasking?

The Difference
The reference, by the way, was to Billy Joel’s ability to sing and play piano at the same time. However, this isn’t multitasking in his case (or in many other cases). He has simply learned to sing and play the piano as a single skill, not to sing while he plays the piano… see the difference?

Fortunately, like any habit, multitasking can eventually be broken through the adoption of better, healthier habits. These habits include:

Avoiding Free Time: Or, in other words, resisting the urge to dive into another project while you’re waiting for a response on one you’re currently working on. This may feel like a squandered opportunity to be productive, but you need to remember the example we went over above: switching back and forth restricts progress from being made on either task in a timely fashion.

This is not to say, of course, that you should sit and wait until you get a response for hours on end.

Instead, you should take the moment to run through your project and evaluate where it stands. Is it set to accomplish what it is supposed to? Once you’ve spent some time doing that, you might consider moving on to something new, but only so long as you resolve to drop it the instant your original task can resume.

Communicate With Your Team: Let’s face it, the majority of your work distractions are going to come from others within your organization, or at least other business matters. Your productivity will require you to discourage and/or ignore these distractions. Whether you communicate to your team your intentions before you begin a task or simply put on a pair of headphones (music or white noise optional) to discourage interaction, make sure you communicate that you are unavailable at the given time.

Disconnect: On a related note, try minimizing the other distractions that may come in. Email, for all its benefits, is a notorious source of distractions in the office. The best approach is to silence your email notifications if at all possible, and schedule out set times to check your inbox. If someone really needs to contact you, they’ll find another way to do so. Your mobile device works the same way: the compulsion to peek at it can be considerable.

However, each time we do, there goes our focus. Unless you’re expecting a truly urgent call, power down your phone and keep it stashed away, out of sight. You may be surprised by how much can be accomplished without the interruptions or temptations.

Getting Organized: There’s a reason that people use to-do lists: they are effective. By mapping out your goals for the day and arranging them by priority, you will be able to accomplish more - especially if you schedule brief breaks periodically throughout the day. By remaining mindful throughout your process, you will be able to better focus on what you need to accomplish, rather than the distractions around you. These habits will help you instill a predisposition to monotasking, multitasking’s more effective cousin.

As its name suggests, monotasking is the full dedication of your time to a single task until no more progress can be made on it. Monotasking enables tasks to be completed more efficiently and effectively, ultimately bringing greater progress towards your goals.

However, just because you can’t multitask, doesn’t mean your technology can’t.

Symmetric Engineering Group can help you implement solutions with automation capabilities, giving your team less to worry about and less to take their focus away from their productivity. Call us at (813) 749-0895 to learn more.

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