Multitasking: essential skill or modern myth?

Multitasking has long been hailed as a desirable skill. And its appeal is obvious: If five tasks can be attended to at the same time, more will be achieved in a shorter space of time, right?

We all attempt multitasking daily. We check our phones while driving and our emails during meetings. What about the 5 tabs we have open in Chrome at work, or the conversations we have in person while replying to messages on WhatsApp? Thanks to our devices, our minds are busier than ever. But are we actually achieving more?

According to Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT, our brains are “not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.” That cost is productivity – the very thing we aim at when multitasking.

Dr Travis Bradberry writes that a study at Stanford found “heavy multitaskers – those who multitask a lot and feel that it boosts their performance – were actually worse at multitasking than those who like to do a single thing at a time. [They] performed worse because they had more trouble organising their thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information, and they were slower at switching from one task to another.” This means that even those people we think are “natural multitaskers” turn out to be quite bad at it!

Those who multitask a lot and feel that it boosts their performance – were actually worse at multitasking than those who like to do a single thing at a time.

Beyond a decrease in productivity, the practice can have some serious mental consequences. Daniel J Levitin writes that “multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation.”

So the reasons to avoid continuously switching between multiple tasks are numerous – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’m not calling for a mass revolution where we all throw our phones into a public bonfire and withdraw into recluse lives as hermits from now on. No. It is more important than ever to know how to cope with numerous responsibilities. We simply need to find the most effective ways of attending to and finishing tasks in pressure situations – and nowhere is the matter more urgent than in the context of the workplace.

Multitasking in the workplace

More challenges arise when thinking through the potential risks of multitasking in the context of the workplace. The myth of multitasking has become so ingrained in our society, that many employers not only encourage, but expect their employees to be busy with many tasks at the same time. Christine Rosen reports on a study conducted at the University of California, which found that “workers took an average of twenty-five minutes to recover from interruptions such as phone calls or answering e-mail and return to their original task.” This, according to the New York Times article from 2007, cost the US economy up to $650 billion a year in productivity loss.

What’s the answer to the problem of divided attention of the modern workforce? Firstly, we need to address a dominant culture which equates busyness with productivity. Frantically trying to do ten things at the same time might make you look successful and might get you kudos from your boss, but will ultimately be detrimental for everyone.

Secondly, there needs to be a greater emphasis on unitasking in the workplace. Employees need to be allowed and encouraged to focus on one task at a time and should be allowed, as far as possible, to check emails and text messages within allocated hours – as opposed to expecting them to always reply instantly.

Employees need to be allowed and encouraged to focus on one task at a time

Lindsey Pollak, a career expert and author of Getting from College to Career, says “[i]t’s absolutely important to know how to unitask because some projects and decisions require deep, uninterrupted thought. If you can’t do that, you might make an okay decision or do an okay job. But if you can really focus on one thing, you’re more likely to do really well.”

So if you want to be more productive and deliver more meaningful work of a higher standard, start making moves to get rid of distractions and start practising the art of unitasking.

How do you experience the effects of multitasking in your personal and professional context? We’d love to hear about it in the comments section.

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