Can You Multitask?


Do you believe you are good at completing multiple tasks simultaneously? Do you think you are better than most other people at “Multitasking”? You may want to think again. New research has found that our brains do not complete tasks simultaneously, as we thought. We actually just force our brains to switch tasks quickly. Each time we move between typing an email and trying to have a conversation or completing an important task and checking the notifications on our phone, we cause a stop/start process inside our brain. Below we will provide insight on the implications of this stop/start process on our quality of work and answer the big question: Do we really save time by “multitasking”? 

This is your Brain on Multitasking

I'm sure most of us already know our quality of work would improve if we took tasks one at a time, but the implications of our multitasking sessions on our brains not only affect our quality of work while we are multitasking.

"That switching comes with a biological cost that ends up making us feel tired much more quickly than if we sustain attention on one thing," says Daniel Levitin, professor of behavioral neuroscience at McGill University.

This fatigue builds up and actually makes our quality trend down and down. We wear ourselves out faster trying to get more done by multitasking. This quickly makes for a long and less effective day, and what do most of us do to combat this?

"People eat more, they take more caffeine. Often what you really need in that moment isn't caffeine, but just a break. If you aren't taking regular breaks every couple of hours, your brain won't benefit from that extra cup of coffee."

I'm as guilty as anyone at over-caffeinating to try and compensate, but this is an ineffective way to bring back our conscious effort and awareness on quality of work. Research has shown repeatedly that to maintain consistent quality of work and to keep mental fatigue at bay, we need to be taking tasks one at a time and utilizing short breaks during the day.  

Does Multitasking Save Time?

So we know multitasking decreases quality of work and increases mental fatigue, but we often consciously sacrifice these to get more done with multitasking. So are you really gaining time?

According to American Psychological Association researchers Joshua Rubinstein, PhD, David Meyer, PhD and Jeffrey Evans, PhD their research showed no on multiple fronts: 

  • Familiar & unfamiliar, simple & complex tasks were tested in all combinations and no matter if the tasks were second nature or an important task requiring extensive concentration ALL participants lost time when they switched back and forth. Their time loss increased with the complexity and the unfamiliarity of the tasks.

  • Research showed that multitasking takes as much as 40 percent more time than focusing on one task at a time -- this increases with complex tasks.
The really bad news comes from a Stanford University study that showed those of us who consider ourselves to be great multitaskers made more mistakes and took longer to complete tasks than those who did not consider themselves competent multitaskers. So the next time you think you can get more done by working on tasks simultaneously, we recommend you think again.

Action Steps:

  1. Whether you are totally convinced that multitasking is a less effective method of work or not, I challenge you to switch to a single-task method of completing work. After doing this, you will likely experience an increase in your quality of work and, as strange as it seems, an increase in your overall productivity.

  2. The majority of successful people make a point to have specific times set aside to check their phones/emails or to handle other groups of tasks. This is something we will discuss deeper in our next post on batching tasks during a day. For now, be intentional about taking each of your tasks to completion and not letting distractions or hopes of getting more done trick you into cycling between mutliple tasks. 

Blessings In Your Endevors,

Ruben Watson 

The Manager's Journal 


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