Bouncing Around

Did you know that multitasking can reduce productivity by as much as 40 percent? As surprising as this number is, what is more surprising is that those who multitask believe that they are being more productive than if they focus on one task at a time. Let’s have a closer look at multitasking.

The first thing to consider is that no one can truly multitask. What they are doing is “task switching.” According to Guy Winch, Ph.D., author of Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries: “When it comes to attention and productivity, our brains have a finite amount. It’s like a pie chart, and whatever we’re working on is going to take up the majority of that pie. There’s not a lot left over for other things, with the exception of automatic behaviors like walking or chewing gum.”

If one is task switching, then the way to save time is to batch your tasks. For instance, if you need to attend meetings, then schedule your meetings all in one day or half-day. This way, you get into the necessary mindset required for meetings and you get meetings done all at once (or in chunks of time). This is much better than having one meeting every day.

Switching frequently between tasks can also introduce errors into your work. This is especially true if your work involves a lot of critical thinking. A 2010 French study concluded that while the human brain can handle two complicated tasks without too much trouble, introducing a third task can overwhelm the frontal cortex and increase the number of mistakes.

Another reason not to multitask is that it increases stress. A University of California found that employees who received a steady stream of email stayed in a perpetual “high alert” mode with higher heart rates. Those without constant access multitasked less and were also less stressed.

Multitasking also increases “inattentional blindness.” One study found that 75% of college students who walked across a street while talking on their cell phones did not notice a clown riding a unicycle nearby. While the brain did not register seeing the clown, there is real danger in inattentional blindness. What if a speeding car was heading toward you while you were engaged on your cell phone?

Multitasking makes it harder to switch between tasks. This is especially true as our brains age. A 2011 study from the University of California in San Francisco concluded that it becomes harder to get back on track after interruptions. This is because sudden interruptions forcing us to focus on another task disrupts short term memory.

All of this begs the question, “Do those who say they can multitask actually multitask and do they do it well?” According to a 2013 University of Utah study, if you engage in multitasking frequently, you are much worse at it than those who only engage occasionally.

The next time you feel the need to bounce around between tasks, STOP. Instead, prioritize and schedule your work to focus on one task at a time. To become more productive, do not divide your attention between tasks. And remember that overall, frequent multitasking or task switching leads to more harm than good.

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