Multitasking is a part of everyone’s lives today; with ever growing to-do lists, work assignments and a constant stream of information from every gadget and device it can be almost impossible to focus on one thing at a time – almost to the point that if you’re not multitasking you feel like you’re wasting time.
Actually, the biggest myth of multitasking is that it increases productivity and saves time. Although it makes sense that doing multiple things at once will be quicker than doing them one after the other, research has proved otherwise. Not only can multitasking decrease productivity, but if you multitask on a daily basis it can actually lead to the brain working less effectively even when completing single tasks!
Do you ever have multiple programs open your computer at once? Different internet browsers, with many tabs open, applications and podcasts on the go? If not, try it – open as many programs as possible and use them. Notice how much slower your computer becomes when running multiple applications at once? This is exactly how your brain works. When too many thought processes are running through at once it becomes overloaded and cannot work as quickly or efficiently.
Of course there are exceptions – sometimes multitasking can be pretty harmless, for example chewing gum and stroking your cat whilst watching television. Although you are doing three things at once, your brain is only processing information from one of them – the TV, so you don’t experience the negative effects associated with multitasking.
But how do we know when it is appropriate to multitask? One way to consider whether it would be more beneficial to single task would be to ask yourself these two questions:
Do I need to use my brain whilst doing this task?
Am I communicating or interacting with another person?
Activities requiring brainpower
The first question seems simple enough, surely you don’t need to think too hard whilst watching television, reading emails or sending a text? It may seem insignificant but your brain is processing information whenever you read, watch or listen to something, and if you are working on multiple tasks it cannot do this simultaneously – you have to keep switching back and forth. Going between different tasks actually uses a lot of brainpower, and you can really waste time without even realising.
Do you ever find yourself rewinding the TV, asking someone to repeat something or rereading a line of text whilst multitasking? These are instances where you should probably be focusing on one task at a time, the switching back and forth can cause you to miss information and make mistakes. Rectifying mistakes requires even more time!
Try focusing on one thing at a time, even just for a week, and see how much your productivity increases. If you work at home set a designated time for each task and finish that task before moving on to the next. Using a timer really helps with this process and if you make the time longer than you think you will actually need you can use the extra minutes to do things that you would usually get distracted by, such as social media.
Take breaks. If you find your mind wandering from your work and you begin to start checking emails or going away from the task on hand then it is time for a break. Eat, drink, give yourself space and time to think without distraction. Too much focus without a break can actually harm performance, and you will find it harder to be creative and generate ideas.
Get into a rhythm. Work out when your most productive times are – such as when your children are napping or at school – and utilise that time to work more efficiently. Do each task individually to increase productivity and then free up more time to spend with your family or doing things you love.
Multitasking effects relationships
Not only does multitasking effect the brain, it also takes a toll on family relationships. Parents who are constantly multitasking when communicating with their children or partner aren’t interacting with their family in meaningful ways.
Dr. Clifford Nass, an expert on the effects of multitasking, believes that the detrimental effects can be applied specifically to parental relationships with children: “If you’re interacting with a child, not looking them in the eye, not listening to what they’re saying, there is an enormous negative impact. You have to pay attention to learn, and if a child doesn’t have the full attention of the parents, that’s a problem.”
But multitasking doesn’t just affect relationships with close family. How many times have you been out with friends and found yourself checking your phone, texting, or using social media? Or even in starbucks grabbing a coffee, and you barely glance at the woman serving you because you need to get that email sent urgently? Not only does it look rude, but you may be missing out on the bigger picture. 75% of people using their phone suffer from inattentional blindness, meaning that you may be looking at others whilst using your phone, but none of it actually registers in your brain as it is too busy trying to focus on the task in hand – your phone.
Children learn by example, and if their example is a mother who is constantly multitasking between her work and her family they will grow up thinking that it is not important to stop what you are doing for a moment to acknowledge somebody who wants to communicate with you.
When you’re on your computer or phone and your partner or children approach you, hit pause, close the laptop, put the device down completely and connect with them face to face. Look them in the eye. Listen. Connect. Try single tasking for just a week. Rethink the way you work, communicate with others and live your life.