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Multitasking: Helpful or Harmful?

Trishna Patnaik– Trishna Patnaik, Mumbai based fine artist, art therapist and healer

What exactly does one mean by multitasking?

Is it literally doing multiple things at once? Or is it more like task switching; spending a certain amount of time doing one thing and then moving onto the next despite not finishing the first thing? No one seems to be totally sure, yet many of us believe that doing a lot of things simultaneously is a positive trait.

In many ways, multitasking seems like a good idea: by working on more than one task at once, multitaskers theoretically speaking are more productive.  Even though multitaskers might seem better at their jobs, several studies indicate that multitasking actually hurts productivity.

Recent studies suggest that constantly checking your smartphone while doing other work makes people more absentminded in their daily lives — and absentminded distraction is likelier to hinder job performance than to help. Before you pick up your smartphone or try to tackle two projects at once, here are a few reasons why multitasking may actually be more harmful than helpful.

Multitaskers Lose Their Focus More Easily.

 It’s simply hard to focus on two things at once! This is the reason many states prohibit texting while driving. You wouldn’t endanger yourself and others by responding to a text at forty-five miles per hour — and even though replying to emails in the middle of a phone call isn’t as dangerous, it’s equally distracting. As a result, multitaskers risk forgetting or omitting important information, and distraction is hardly ever productive in most scenarios.

Multitasking Does Slow You Down. 

Far from increasing productivity, switching back and forth between tasks actually makes those same tasks take even longer, ultimately slowing down the pace at which work can be completed.

Multitasking Isn’t Necessarily Polite. 

Multitasking in the privacy of your office is one thing, but texting or answering emails during staff meetings or while talking to others is rude. Unless you have permission to do other work, it’s more polite to focus on the task at hand — even if the meeting or conversation happens to be boring.

Multitasking Leads to Making Mistakes.

 The Marty-Dugas study showed that multitasking enabled by smartphones allows the mind to wander — hardly the mental state you want during a one-on-one with your boss — and causes more frequent errors, likely due to a lack of attention.

Multitasking is Definitely Bad for Your Brain. 

Chronic multitaskers focused on a single task, they were less efficient; over time, frequent multitasking actually changes the way the brain functions, leading to decreased productivity even when focused.

Multitasking Interrupts the Flow of Work. 

Many successful people — including writers, artists, musicians, and more — report their most creative and productive work takes place in a “flow” that allows them to focus completely on the task at hand. Naturally, multitasking is antithetical to this flow, and serial multitaskers risk being less productive and creative as a result.

Multitasking Equates to Absentmindedness. 

Few people would willingly characterize themselves as forgetful, but frequent multitaskers become more absentminded over time. Because so many jobs require a reliable memory, multitaskers may find themselves at a disadvantage compared to their more focused colleagues.

The power of single-tasking

The modern workplace is a minefield of multitasking opportunities. But that also means that people who are able to focus intensely on one thing at a time have a major advantage. If you want to get tasks done at a higher quality and in less time, it pays dividends to focus on one thing at a time.

Here’s why:

Single-tasking = less stress. When you expend extra energy trying to multitask, you end up exhausted and behind on work. When you focus on one thing at a time, however, you’re more likely to get into a state of flow, actually finish what you wanted to, and in turn, lower your workplace stress levels.

Single-tasking makes you focus on what you “should” do (not what you “could” do). Choosing something to place all your attention on for a set period of time means saying no to a bunch of other tasks. This not only helps you prioritize your most important work, but can also rebuild your focus.

Doing one thing at a time can make you more creative. It might seem like single-tasking is limiting. But in fact, constraints can boost creativity. As research has found, when we face scarcity in resources we give ourselves “freedom to use those resources in less conventional ways—because we have to.”

To start, focus on these five techniques:

  1. Create a daily schedule with dedicated time for focused work

Your daily schedule is your map for the day. It tells you what your intentions are and holds you accountable to them. It’s also your first line of defense against multitasking.

Start by scheduling non-negotiable time for “focused work” at the start of your day. This can be as short as 15-20 minutes or as long as 90 minutes. The goal is simply to start rebuilding your ability to focus on a task at hand without distraction.

  1. Limit your email time and work in “bursts”

Throughout the day, one of the biggest contributors to multitasking is your email. Communication time eats into everything we do. And because it feels productive, we don’t really think of it as multitasking. But it is.

  1. Alternate between periods of focus and breaks

Avoiding multitasking doesn’t mean avoiding breaks. In fact, to keep your energy levels high and focus on single-tasking, you need to have moments to refuel and refocus. Regular breaks also help clear out the attention residue left over from your previous task.

How you work is up to you, but some popular methods include the Pomodoro technique (working 25 minutes and then taking a 5-minute break) or following the 52/17 rule (52 minutes on, 17-minute break).

  1. Optimize your work environment for focus

Distractions aren’t the only thing that causes us to multitask. Your work environment can pull at your attention just as much as a notification. Designing a work environment for focus can be as simple as clearing out the clutter (both physical and digital) and making distractions harder to use (like putting your phone in another room).

Following these steps won’t guarantee you don’t multitask. But they will help you focus and give you the best chance of staying committed to seeing a task through to the finish line.

Here are three reasons why multitasking is more unproductive than you think and why you should always focus on one thing at a time:

Multitasking reduces your efficiency and performance because your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. When you try to do two things at once, your brain lacks the capacity to perform both tasks successfully.

Multitasking Lowers IQ

Research shows that, in addition to slowing you down, multitasking lowers your IQ. So the next time you’re writing your boss an email during a meeting, remember that your cognitive capacity is being diminished to the point that you might as well let an 8-year-old write it for you.

Brain Damage from Multitasking

It was long believed that cognitive impairment from multitasking was temporary, but new research suggests otherwise. High multitaskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control. While more research is needed to determine if multitasking is physically damaging the brain (versus existing brain damage that predisposes people to multitask), it’s clear that multitasking has negative effects.

Learning From Multitasking

If you’re prone to multitasking, this is not a habit you’ll want to indulge into—it clearly slows you down and decreases the quality of your work. Even if it doesn’t cause brain damage, allowing yourself to multitask will fuel any existing difficulties you have with concentration, organization, and attention to detail. Multitasking in meetings and other social settings indicates low Self and Social Awareness, two emotional intelligence (EQ) skills that are critical to success at work. If multitasking does indeed damage the anterior cingulate cortex (a key brain region for EQ) as current research suggests, it will lower your EQ in the process.

Other articles by Trishna Patnaik: What is Emotional Clutter?

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