Many employers still view ‘multitasking’ as a strength; we challenge you to find a job advert or applicant who doesn’t highlight the importance of managing multiple projects and conflicting priorities at the same time. However, the science (Sanbonmatsu et al, 2013) shows that multitasking and spinning more plates than our brains are comfortable with, can cause depression, anxiety and decreased productivity by as much as 40%. Therefore, it’s time that employers stop championing a practice that will burn people out and cause long term stress leave and start evangelising focused, serial uni-tasking.
1. What is multitasking?
Multitasking is technically possible, but only if one of the tasks cognitively demanding. For example, you can listen to background music or chew gum while you are driving a car because, only the act of driving is challenging the brain and requires concentration. Multitasking is the act of switching between two or more tasks at the same time.
2. Why multitasking is counter productive
When we try to focus on multiple things at once, it puts unwanted pressure on our brains. We’re designed to concentrate on one task at a time, so if we’re juggling other projects it can cause stress. The best way to work is to set one goal, put all your focus into that task until it is complete and then move onto the next one. That method will ensure that you can work efficiently and effectively to the highest standard, rather than rush your work to tick boxes off your to do list.
3. The link between multitasking and unhealthy lifestyle (substance abuse, overeating and caffeine consumption)
It’s common to feel the pressure to multitask in today’s world of work and leisure. Multitasking wasn’t part of our vernacular until the mid-1960’s when IBM introduced a computer that could perform many actions at the same time. Suddenly, people felt compelled to maximise their time by trying to do more than one thing at a time such as answering an email about a different project while in a virtual meeting or juggling working from home and home schooling the kids. However, it can be a huge distraction and effect your wellbeing and lead to unhealthy habits like overeating. According to a 2013 review, being distracted during mealtimes or eating at your desk, can prevent your brain from fully processing what you’ve eaten, which means you don’t feel full and you may be tempted to overeat as a result.
Multitasking is exhausting, so some people rely on stimulants such as caffeine or other illegal substances to keep going and meet tight deadlines. Simulants keep you awake; the half-life is 4 to 6 hours and therefore, they have a negative effect on your body clock by disrupting sleep patterns. They might make you feel energised for a short period and help you fight fatigue but, in the long run, they will cause you to burn out.
4. Multitasking and memory loss
Professor Anthony Wagner from Stamford University says that preliminary studies show that those who multitask on a regular basis are more likely to experience memory loss. Humans are not designed to manage multiple tasks and, when you flip between different projects, you’re not concentrating fully on the task at hand, therefore, you will not remember specific details.
5. Multitasking leads to more mistakes
If you’re not paying full attention to a task, you’re more likely to make mistakes. At best mistakes with waste more time than you saved by trying to multitask, and at worst, could cause serious harm to people or property.
6. How to stop multitasking
Breaking a habit can be difficult, especially one that society has championed since the 1960’s. However, to protect our wellbeing and ‘Stay Ahead of the Curve’ then we must move away from the idea of multitasking. As a starting point, you can try:
- Creating a list of daily priorities – This will help you stayed focused on one thing at a time.
- Setting aside time for distractions – Everyone needs a coffee break and lunch away from your desk to switch off.
- Managing time spent on your phone – Be present in the moment don’t be distracted by text messages and social media.
- Learning to say no or, yes but not yet. We can take on too much without thinking about the impact that commitment has on our time. Be honest with your managers and colleagues; if you have too many plates to spin, find out if someone else to spin one for you.