OK, we have all either heard or said it… “women are better than men at it”, and “she’s a mother so she multi-tasks with consummate ease”.
However, asking whether men or women are better at multi-tasking is the wrong question. Instead, the smart question is: should you be doing it at all? Is it better to do several tasks or activities simultaneously, or should we concentrate on doing one thing at a time? To answer this, we need to understand the risks and benefits of so-called ‘multi-tasking’ (more on this later!) to help us choose whether we should do it or not.
It feels like a good use of time when we do it, e.g., reading whilst watching TV, answering emails whilst on a zoom call and, my husband’s favourite, ironing whilst watching ‘Match of the day’!
In today’s fast-paced world, we are all super busy. It has become increasingly difficult to balance work and family life in a way that satisfies you, your boss, and your loved ones. We have been duped into believing that multi-tasking is the answer to our lack of time. Worse still, somewhere along the way we have created heroes out of those who multi-task. We have adopted the notion that doing more than one thing at a time increases efficiency and frees up time in our home and work lives.
somewhere along the way we have created heroes out of those who multi-task
But how true are our assumptions? Is multi-tasking (or multi-switching, which is what you are actually doing) a good thing and can you really save valuable time? To help you decide, this blog busts a few myths and exposes some of the hard the truths about multi-tasking.
Five false assumptions:
1. Our brain can easily do several tasks at once.
Despite our belief that we can do several things simultaneously, studies from neuroscience and psychology suggest that our brains do not multi-task! Instead, the brain rapidly switches from one task to the other (multi-switching). This happens so quickly that we barely notice the shift.
2. We get more done when we multi-task.
The myth here is that when we multi-task, it makes us super-efficient and more productive. But the reality is, switching from one task to another causes more mistakes. We think we are being productive when we are, in fact, more likely to be doing the task badly or making mistakes and creating more work. Studies suggest that multi-tasking can reduce productivity by as much as 40%.
3. We save time by multi-tasking.
As well as being less efficient, multi-switching between tasks takes more time in the long run. We lose focus on the task we stop doing and then take longer to recover our focus on it when we return to the previous task. This results in wasted time.
4. We can focus on several things at once.
Rather than do several tasks simultaneously, the brain focuses on one thing at a time. When another task is presented, the brain rapidly shifts attention from the first thing to the other. This is emotionally and intellectually exhausting. It spreads your attention thinly which increases your error rate, drains your energy, and reduces your ability to think clearly.
5. We can rapidly recover focus when we switch from one task to another.
Cognitive studies from psychology have looked at how we process specific information in our environment. The fact is, we cannot easily or rapidly regain focus. You will have noticed this phenomenon when, for example, you ask someone a question whilst they are looking at their phone, computer, or reading something. They are in effect ‘tuned out’. Their attention is focused on a particular thing, causing them to momentarily block out other input. When you ask them a question, their response is often slow or delayed and may start with “erm…”, “sorry” or “what?”. Even if they are asked a relatively simple question such as “what’s for dinner?” it evokes a delayed response if the person being asked is focusing on something else.
What prudent people do
My message is undeniably tilted towards advising you to avoid multi-tasking when possible. This is especially true when a task is important and has the potential to yield either positive or unwelcome consequences.
Hence, it is only fair that I offer some ways to manage the multiple tasks that you are probably juggling every day in your life. Here are a few suggestions…
- Have a short daily to-do list (and stick to it) which limits the number of things you will do in a day. Tick off things as you complete them – your brain responds positively to this by releasing positive hormones which help you feel good.
- Work for a maximum of 20 minutes at a time and then take a short break (this has been shown to increase productivity).
- Ensure you know which items/tasks are the most important ones and prioritise these.
- List things that you will stop doing and either drop or delegate trivial tasks or duties.
- Avoid distractions (switch off or mute your devices) and stick to your list.
- Plan a reward after completing something you dislike doing or something that is difficult. Even small rewards increase motivation.
- Ensure that there are some things on your to-do list that bring you joy or fulfilment.
A variety of studies have confirmed that our ability to do more than one task at the same time is limited and can be detrimental to the quality of work produced.
People who believe that they get more done by doing several tasks at once are misguided. They achieve less than they would if they focused on one thing at a time. When your attention is divided or interrupted, you are much more likely to make mistakes.
Returning to my husband’s multi-tasking trick (ironing and watching football on the TV), he relies on the action replay or the opportunity to rewind to see the goals he missed whilst concentrating on the ironing (burning the clothes carries hefty consequences)! However, in life, we rarely have the privilege of an action replay or rewind.
If you need to focus on an important task, do that task and nothing else. Make sure the people around you know that you do not wish to be interrupted. And, probably hardest of all, switch off the devices that you are not using for the task.
Stop making multi-tasking a heroic act. Instead acknowledge the shortcomings of doing it and try my suggestions above to help you through your busy day.