The Multitasking Myth: Why Managing Multiple Tasks Doesn’t Work

Managing Multitasking

In today’s hectic world, multitasking has become commonplace. Many of us multitask in an attempt to increase our productivity. Think about it – how many times have you been reading an article, responding to e-mail, and chatting with coworkers all at the same time? People who can multitask are often seen as effective and efficient by others, but the reality is that the quality of one’s work likely decreases when multitasking.

Multitasking results in us wasting more time. It doesn’t work because the human brain can’t efficiently focus on more than one task at a time. The mind gets overloaded trying to switch between two tasks. Our short-term memories can only store between five and nine things at once and when trying to process two different activities simultaneously, the mind cannot store both streams of information into short-term memory (Merrill). When information doesn’t make it into short-term memory, it can’t be transferred into long-term memory. MIT neuroscientist, Earl Miller, reinforces that point stating, “People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves” (Hamilton).

Unfortunately, it’s just not possible to fully focus on two things at once. When we switch tasks, our minds must adjust to gain perspective on the new information. If we do this constantly over an extended period of time, such as when we’re multitasking, we simply can’t dedicate our full attention and focus to every switch. This results in lower quality. The more complex or technical the tasks are, the bigger the drop in quality is likely to be.

Trying to manage multiple tasks at once is also stressful. It tends to make us feel overwhelmed and frustrated. Consciously concentrating on one task at a time has been proven to increase productivity and lower stress. Think of the last thing you devoted your full attention to. You were likely able to focus, and you probably finished it feeling as if you not only completed something, but also as if you did it well.

Am I Multitasking?

It can be tough to recognize when you are multitasking, but there are a few fundamental signs you can look for:

• How many windows do you have open on your desktop? – Too many may be a sign you are multitasking

• An unpleasant task may cause you to avoid the pain of grinding out the assignment by surfing the internet or by chatting with colleagues. Do you multitask when faced with a daunting assignment?

• Frequent interruptions often lead to multitasking. Say you are writing an e-mail when a coworker stops by to ask for a favor. You then put your e-mail aside to work on the coworker’s task. When you come back to your e-mail, you forget where you were or the point you were trying to make leading to wasted time and effort.

What Can I Do to Stop Multitasking?

If we want to improve the quality of our work, lower our stress levels, and become more efficient, then we need get out of the multitasking habit.

• Pop-up notifications on a computer screen can be distracting. In today’s world, IM chat boxes and incoming e-mail notifications are flickering away on the toolbar or corner of the screen. Often times, it’s easy to go off task by being distracted by these notifications. It may be a microsecond, but that moment may lead to losing track of where you were. Stress ensues. So, when in the middle of an important task, set your IM/e-mail preferences to not pop up – that way you can stay on track.

• One tip to minimize your multitasking is to break your day up into time blocks. Set aside designated times to check e-mails, to work on projects/presentations, to focus fully in a meeting without being distracted, etc.

• What/who is causing you to be interrupted and how important are their requests? Once you diagnose what/who is taking up most of your time and how important the requests for your attention are, you can work to evaluate the importance of each person/task and adjust accordingly.

• Stay on task – when trying to complete a task that requires intense focus and thought, practice not being distracted. If you feel yourself being distracted, consciously engage in resisting the temptation to surf the internet or talk to a coworker. Taking a five minute break to refresh is a good way to regain focus.

• “There will be times when something urgent comes up and you can’t avoid interruptions. Instead of trying to multitask through these, stop and make a note of where you left your current task. Record any thoughts you had about how to move forward. Then deal with the immediate problem before going back to what you were doing. This way you’ll be able to handle both tasks well, and you’ll leave yourself with some clues to help you restart the original task more quickly” (Mind Tools).

References:

Hamilton, Jon. “Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again.” NPR. NPR, 02 Oct. 2008. Web. 15 Nov. 2012. .

Merrill, Douglas. “Why Multitasking Doesn’t Work.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 17 Aug. 2012. Web. 15 Nov. 2012. .

“Multitasking: Can It Help You Get More Done?” Mind Tools. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2012. .

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