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We’ve Been Wrong About Multitasking All Along

We’ve Been Wrong About Multitasking All Along

Picture this scene: It’s 30 minutes into my workday and I’ve already ticked three things off my To Do list. I’ve got something done about finances, finalized a networking meeting, polished a pitch, and am ready to do some serious writing. Then all of a sudden, my internet connection is down. Whoa! How can anyone get anything done without the internet? After some minutes of panic and ranting, I begin to do what I can, offline. And then, eventually, the internet’s absence reveals some beliefs I had wrong about multitasking because—surprise!—work flows smoothly until the end of a most productive day, despite my not being able to check and respond to messages or quickly research points.

While the ability to work on simultaneous tasks has its merits, knowing where we got it wrong about multitasking gives us control over the work process. Here are 10 things we’ve had wrong about multitasking:

1. It’s not really multitasking.

Multitasking is actually switching between tasks. Studies by psychologist René Marois at Vanderbilt University revealed that when humans attempt to do two tasks at once, execution of the first task leads to a delay in the second task because a bottleneck occurs in the brain’s information processing area. Simply put, the brain cannot effectively do two things at once.

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2. Not all work can be done with multitasking.

Multitasking can only be done when one task is automatic, such as showering or walking. In The Multitasking Mind, authors Dario Salvucci and Niels Taatgen cite reading while mixing a bowl of ingredients and pulling weeds in the garden while listening to the radio as examples of effortless multitasking. Difficulties come up when tasks involve the same brain processing or body part, such as typing and using a mouse (both require the right hand) or driving and scanning a navigation device (both require vision). The most intense conflict is multitasking in the head, where cognitive and linguistic brain processes create interference, such as reading while having a conversation.

3. Not everyone can multitask.

Some people are better at multitasking than others, but they are not necessarily those who multitask a lot. “In fact, the more likely they are to do it, the more likely they are to be bad at it.” This is what Dr. David Sanbonmatsu and Dr. David Strayer, psychology professors at the University of Utah, found in a research study. The study suggests that  people multitask not because they have the ability, but “because they are less able to block out distractions and focus on a singular task.”

4. Multitasking does not save time.

Time-saving is another major thing I got wrong about multitasking. Switching from one task to another or doing two or more tasks in rapid succession uses up seconds. Dr. Joshua Rubinstein, Dr. Jeffrey Evans and Dr. David Meyer conducted experiments in which young adults switched between tasks like solving math problems or classifying geometric objects. They found that multitasking actually takes as much as 40% of productive time.

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5. Multitasking is not efficient.

The study of Rubinstein, Evans, and Meyer additionally showed that multitasking involves more errors that occur from cognitive load in the brain. The brain needs to not only adjust to the second task but also to remember where it stopped in the original task. If counting is interrupted by a second task, you need to reorient and remember where you stopped counting in order to proceed with an accurate count. Errors also occur with activities that involve critical thinking.

6. Multitasking can be dangerous.

Air traffic controllers work with heightened stress levels caused by the strenuous effort required to focus on their tasks. They are aware of the dangerous consequences of one mistake. Near-fatal results can also take place in the medical field, as in the case of a 56-year-old male dementia patient. At a visit during hospital rounds, his attending physician instructed the resident to discontinue his anticoagulation medication. The hospital’s computerized provider order entry system (CPOE) allowed for this to be done in real time. The resident began to enter the order into her smartphone but received a text message from a friend about a party, which she responded to. The physician and resident then continued on their rounds. The resident didn’t complete the entry to discontinue the medication resulting in an emergency open-heart surgery, which the patient, fortunately, survived.

7. A multitasking boss sends the wrong signal.

In her book, The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt—How You Lead, Carol Kinsey Goman talks about leaders’ non-verbal messages. An example of this is a boss who verbally tells her team they are important and are always welcome in her office. Yet, when a team member seeks her out, this boss answers questions while writing an email or shuffling papers and does not make eye contact. Result: the team feel they don’t even get half of this leader’s attention.

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8. Multitasking gets in the way of meetings.

You’d think with all the devices available, meetings would cover more in less time. Attendees should be able to note down their reporting topics and action items. We got that wrong about multitasking too. What usually happens is people lose track of the discussion because they are tweaking their reports or noting down action items. In a productive meeting, the attendees are also mentally present and actively engaged in the discussion. One assigned person takes down the meeting minutes for distribution later.

9. Multitasking dulls memory and the ability to organize.

What we often believe to be memory problems are actually attention problems. You cannot remember later what you do not pay attention to now. Child and adult psychiatrist, Dr. Edward Hallowell describes attention deficit trait (ADT) as a response to our hyperkinetic environment. When an individual is dealing with more inputs than they possibly can, their brain circuits get overloaded. They are unable to stay organized, set priorities, or manage time.

10. Multitasking detracts from relationships.

We justify work multitasking as a means to have more time for our relationships. Well, we got that wrong about multitasking too. As more mobile apps become available for work, chores, and errands, the role of multitasking with mobile phones has reached villainous status. No doubt you’ve experienced the frustration of having a conversation with a partner or a friend that is interrupted by text messages, emails, or actual phone calls. A study by the University of Essex showed the mere presence of a mobile phone—even when not in use—during personal conversations becomes a barrier to closeness, trust, and empathy.

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Why what we got wrong about multitasking is good news.

It’s okay not to multitask. Focusing on one task allows you to finish it sooner and begin the next task. You can also better focus on important face-to-face encounters.

When you need to multitask, you can do it well. Those who do not usually multitask make the best multitaskers, according to the Strayer and Sanbonmatsu study.

You can choose effective task pairings and devices. Have double PC monitors to facilitate research, use foot pedals when transcribing, and listen to select audiobooks while driving.

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Oh, and by all means, whistle while you work!

Featured photo credit: Arthur Gebuys via flickr.com

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Last Updated on June 1, 2021

7 Signs That You’re Way Too Busy (And Need to Change That)

7 Signs That You’re Way Too Busy (And Need to Change That)

“Busy” used to be a fair description of the typical schedule. More and more, though, “busy” simply doesn’t cut it.

“Busy” has been replaced with “too busy”, “far too busy”, or “absolutely buried.” It’s true that being productive often means being busy…but it’s only true up to a point.

As you likely know from personal experience, you can become so busy that you reach a tipping point…a point where your life tips over and falls apart because you can no longer withstand the weight of your commitments.

Once you’ve reached that point, it becomes fairly obvious that you’ve over-committed yourself.

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The trick, though, is to recognize the signs of “too busy” before you reach that tipping point. A little self-assessment and some proactive schedule-thinning can prevent you from having that meltdown.

To help you in that self-assessment, here are 7 signs that you’re way too busy:

1. You Can’t Remember the Last Time You Took a Day Off

Occasional periods of rest are not unproductive, they are essential to productivity. Extended periods of non-stop activity result in fatigue, and fatigue results in lower-quality output. As Sydney J. Harris once said,

“The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it.”

2. Those Closest to You Have Stopped Asking for Your Time

Why? They simply know that you have no time to give them. Your loved ones will be persistent for a long time, but once you reach the point where they’ve stopped asking, you’ve reached a dangerous level of busy.

3. Activities like Eating Are Always Done in Tandem with Other Tasks

If you constantly find yourself using meal times, car rides, etc. as times to catch up on emails, phone calls, or calendar readjustments, it’s time to lighten the load.

It’s one thing to use your time efficiently. It’s a whole different ballgame, though, when you have so little time that you can’t even focus on feeding yourself.

4. You’re Consistently More Tired When You Get up in the Morning Than You Are When You Go to Bed

One of the surest signs of an overloaded schedule is morning fatigue. This is a good indication that you’ve not rested well during the night, which is a good sign that you’ve got way too much on your mind.

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If you’ve got so much to do that you can’t even shut your mind down when you’re laying in bed, you’re too busy.

5. The Most Exercise You Get Is Sprinting from One Commitment to the Next

It’s proven that exercise promotes healthy lives. If you don’t care about that, that’s one thing. If you’d like to exercise, though, but you just don’t have time for it, you’re too busy.

If the closest thing you get to exercise is running from your office to your car because you’re late for your ninth appointment of the day, it’s time to slow down.

Try these 5 Ways to Find Time for Exercise.

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6. You Dread Getting up in the Morning

If your days are so crammed full that you literally dread even starting them, you’re too busy. A new day should hold at least a small level of refreshment and excitement. Scale back until you find that place again.

7. “Survival Mode” Is Your Only Mode

If you can’t remember what it feels like to be ahead of schedule, or at least “caught up”, you’re too busy.

So, How To Get out of Busyness?

Take a look at this video:

And these articles to help you get unstuck:

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Featured photo credit: Khara Woods via unsplash.com

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