Photograph: Si Cohen
There’s plenty to get stressed about in work and life these days, and yet contrary to popular belief, the ability to multi task only makes things worse. Although employers might identify it as a skill they’re looking for, research has proved that it is neither efficient or effective. In his business bestseller The One Thing, Gary Keller tells us that ‘in a world of results it will fail you everytime.’
And yet many of us multi task to some extent. After all, don’t we get more done when we do more than one thing at a time? How many of us are on the phone/ sending emails/ responding to instant messaging at the same time? However, studies have found that multi tasking can actually waste around 20-40 percent of our time for the simple reason that we can’t focus effectively on more than one important task at a time. When we do, our attention gets divided.
There are two big problems with multi tasking.
It can lower the quality of our work – we try to do two things or more things at once, and the result is that we do everything less well than if we focused on each task in turn. When we switch tasks, our minds must reorient to cope with the new information. When we do this quickly, we can’t devote our full concentration to every switch. So the quality of our work suffers and the more complex or technical the tasks we’re switching between, the bigger the drop in quality is likely to be.
It has a negative effect on our stress levels. Dealing with multiple things at once makes us feel overwhelmed, drained and exhausted.
Daniel J. Levitin explains the neuroscience in his book ‘The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.’
‘Multi tasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multi tasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new – the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and kittens. The irony here for those of us who are trying to focus amid competing activities is clear: the very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted. We answer the phone, look up something on the internet, check our email, send an SMS, and each of these things tweaks the novelty- seeking, reward-seeking centres of the brain, causing a burst of endogenous opioids (no wonder it feels so good!), all to the detriment of our staying on task. It is the ultimate empty-caloried brain candy. Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks.’
“People can’t do [multi tasking] very well, and when they say they can, they’re deluding themselves, says Earl Miller, neuroscientist at MIT”
What to do? Find a new groove. Mindtools provide some useful suggestions to help you cut back on multi tasking:
• Plan your day in blocks. Set specific times for returning calls, answering emails, and doing research.
• Manage your interruptions . Keep a log showing who interrupts you the most, and how urgent the requests are. Once you’ve compiled a week’s worth of interruptions, politely but assertively approach your colleagues with a view to managing and reducing their interruptions.
• Learn how to improve your concentration so you can focus properly on one task at a time. Doing this may feel awkward at first if you frequently multi task. But you’ll be surprised at how much you get done just by concentrating on one thing at a time.
• Every time you go to check your email or take a call when you’re actually supposed to be doing something else, take a deep breath and resist the urge. Focus your attention back to what you’re supposed to be doing.
• Whenever you find yourself multi tasking, stop. Take a minute to sit quietly at your desk with your eyes closed. Even short breaks like this can refocus your mind, lower your stress levels, and improve your concentration. Plus it can give your brain a welcome break during a hectic day.
• There will be times when something urgent comes up and you can’t avoid interruptions. But instead of trying to multi task 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.
• If you find your mind wandering when you should be focusing on something else, you need to guide your thoughts back to what you are doing by putting yourself in the moment. For example, you might be sitting in an important team meeting, but thinking about a speech you’ll be giving soon. Tell yourself, “I am in this meeting, and need to focus on what I’m learning here.” Often, acknowledging the moment can help keep you focused.
This all might sound like common sense, but like any new habit, it will take practice. Once you’ve mastered this, you’ll experience a real sense of satisfaction, of completing a job well, and to a standard you’re proud of.
If a recruiter asks whether you’re a multi tasker, you might want to reply that it depends on the task at hand – important work needs focused attention.