The Myth of Multitasking

Multitasking lowEveryone I know is a multitasker. Whether it’s talking on the phone while driving, texting while walking or checking emails in boring meetings.   Today, not “making full use” of our time by doing just one thing seems wasteful to many people. This is true at work too. One study of office workers showed that they switched tasks every three to four minutes, with a 30-minute refocusing time necessary when that happens–certainly not an efficient way to work.

But time and again research shows us two things: (a) there is no such as thing as multitasking and (b) this behavior is not only inefficient but can also be harmful.   When you multitask, what your brain is really doing is switching between tasks. This constant switching is energy intensive, is highly inefficient and physically wears down your brain.

One study  shows a 40 % decrease in productivity when multitasking. Other studies show that increased rates of error and stress levels are only some of the costs of multitasking. But, as a Coach, where I see multitasking as a big issue is in how it impacts my client’s abilities to manage mental energy and brain fitness.

Sometimes the demands on managers’ time and attention make one feel like a juggling octopus. After a while we get awfully good at it and don’t even realize we’re doing it. It becomes “mindless”. Perhaps we need to recover the skill of single tasking, of being able to really focus to get work done.

You may not have control over interruptions at the office, but you can set some priorities and tactfully set boundaries on your thinking time. This may require you to close your office door or tell people in advance when you can or can’t be interrupted.

I’ve asked many people about their multitasking habits in the work I do in organizations. Most people proudly confess to these skills like a badge of honor. But sometimes I wonder how much of it is fear-driven. We’re probably terrified of missing something or not having an answer immediately at our fingertips. Perhaps this contributes to our own loss of time and ability to focus on single tasking.

Single-tasking well is a skill that’s underrated. When you think about it, telling someone you’re occupied with one thing and can’t fracture your attention isn’t something that’s commonly stated. Maybe we should start.

What do you think? Are you paying attention to your brain fitness?

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