In our present society, most people will praise when someone is able to multitask. People find it very good if someone can accomplish tasks by multitasking. A multitasker will always justify that they are getting many tasks done in a day, which saves time, money and energy. However, some research leads us to believe that multitasking is pervasive in our society and in reality, doesn’t actually get you anywhere.

Image credit: dilbert.com

Image credit: dilbert.com

Does this describe you? Maybe you are on a conference call while you’re rewriting your quarterly report, texting your friend about your lunch meeting and checking your email, all at the same time. You may be amazed that you have the capability to do those things at the same time and you may say that you’re good at it. But, you might want to rethink your strategy. Recent studies have shown that people who multitask lose about 40% of their productivity. Yes, multitasking can give someone a sense of accomplishment or happiness, but it often leads to low quality work and added stress. So, why do so many people do it even though experience and research show that it doesn’t really work to our benefit?

What Is Multitasking?

By definition, multitasking is the performance of an individual doing more than one task at a time. The popular term was derived from a term used by computer engineers, “computer multitasking”. Based on much research and experience, multitasking can waste a lot of time due to context switching which results in more mistakes due to lack of focus or divided attention.

Facts Behind Research

Since the 1960s, many experimental psychologists have performed experiments on the nature and the limits of human multitasking. The researchers have long suggested that there appears to be a processing bottleneck that prevents the brain from working on some specific key aspects of many tasks at the same time. Many of these researchers believe the cognitive function subject to the most harsh form of bottlenecking was the planning of actions and the retrieval of information from memory.

Psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell, MD, director of the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health in Sudbury, Mass has also described multitasking is “a myth where people believe that they can do several tasks simultaneously as effectively as doing one single achievable task. Speed is the modern and natural high he added. On the other hand, there is enough evidence that anyone can carry out many motor and perceptual functions at the same time.”

Present Study

A small and recent study that was published in the Journal of Communication suggested that people multitask because it makes us feel better. According to study researcher Zheng Wang, Ohio State University’s assistant professor of communication, “some people believe a myth that multitasking makes them more productive. These people seem to mis-perceive the feel-good sensation they get from multitasking. These people are not being more productive, but they just feel more emotionally happy or satisfied from their task.”

The Ohio State university research included 32 college students who all carried a mobile phone-like device for one month. The study group were asked to report their activities thrice a day and how long they participated in every activity and if they are multitasking by doing another activity at the same time. The study group was asked by the researchers to state why they did every task or a combination of activities, for instance if it was for work or study purposes, social, entertainment or a habit. The study group rated the strength of each need out of 10 points. The research found that study group was more likely to multitask if they need to complete a habitual task, study or work. They also found out that emotional needs were in fact met by multitasking.

Image credit: www.enmast.com

Image credit: www.enmast.com

Multitasking And The Brain

Based on several studies, the brain is unable to multitask. Some people think they are truly capable of it, but actually, their brains are having a hard time processing. And because the brain cannot fully focus when multitasking, people will take longer to complete any tasks and will be marred by errors. When people try to complete many tasks at the same time or rapidly in between each task, the rate of mistakes and errors will go up and it will take longer for a job to be finished. The reason for this is that the human brain is compelled to refocus and restart. Many experts have stated that people who multitask will not only perform poorly, but they will lose precious time in the process.

Image credit: 38pitches.com

Image credit: 38pitches.com

When the brain is presented with too much information, it requires a pause and then refocuses when switching between different tasks. This is fast toggling among the different tasks rather than simultaneously processing each bit of information. Another study by the Vanderbilt University stated that the brain shows what is called a “response selection bottleneck” when a person is required to perform several tasks at the same time. This means that the brain must decide which activity is the most important, thereby taking a large chunk of time. Multitasking also splits the brain. It develops “spotlights”. The brain switches brain activities for different tasks and it goes to and fro as you focus on each task for minutes at a time. According to Clifford Nass of Stanford University, multitaskers might develop some form of outstanding skills of:

  1. filtering information
  2. being quick at switching between tasks
  3. keeping a high working memory

However, they found out that these 3 points are not true. Nass stated that multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They are bad at filtering irrelevant information and perform poorly at switching between the tasks as compared to more focused single tasks. There is also a popular notion that women are better at multitasking than men, but there is little data available to support this claim. Most research shows   that the differences between genders are very small and inconsistent.

 How To Be Efficient And Finish The Job          

Now you know that multitasking won’t give you 100% efficiency, what should you do? How can you effectively cope with all the tasks, without any distractions in your life or at work?

1. Use the 20/80 rule

20% of the work you give will yield 80% of the effectiveness and impact. Focus on knowing the 20% of your tasks that are really effective and then do them one at a time.

2. Do batch processing   

You can do this not just with your email but with anything that can distract you. If you do batch processing, you will be able to eliminate any unnecessary tasks during the day.

3. Focus on the most important tasks firsts

This is a no brainer. Identify all the important tasks at the start of each day that you want to accomplish. Once you have them identified, do them first and then perform the other not so important tasks once you have finished with them. This will bring a bigger sense of fulfillment than doing many tasks at a time an not finishing anything at all.

4. Maximize concentration time

Take away distractions before doing very important tasks. If you have a presentation that you need to present, turn off your phone or lower the volume, go to your office or cubicle or go anywhere where no one can disturb you and dedicate all the time for your presentation prep. You will be amazed at how much you will accomplish.

5. Take a break

If you’re multitasking, you’re just setting yourself up for a possible failure or unwanted stress. You will never solve any problems by doing this. Focus on one task at a time and if you can’t seem to solve a problem, take a break. Don’t think of the task at hand, relax and take a breather. Take a nap or have a cone of ice cream. Reboot your brain. The more rest it gets, the more focused you will be.

7. Change

The first step to eliminate any unproductive multitasking is to stop doing it. Change your behavior. It may be hard, but you need to do it if you want to change and be more productive.

8. If you can, go off the grid

If you can, take a vacation on an island. No email, no phone, no internet. Just use a computer to upload photos and nothing else. This will give you time to re-calibrate yourself and kick out the habit of multitasking. You will see the difference once you get back to the city and it will be a positive change.

Singletasking is in, multitasking is out!

About Author

Jon specialises in research and content creation for our outreach campaigns. He’s worked as a technical support representative for Dell, America Online, Xbox and Dodo Australia. He’s an avid scooterist and musician.