Multitasking: 6 reasons to quit

In today’s fast-paced, techno-crazed world, multitasking is a highly valued skill. When time is short, performing two or more tasks simultaneously – instead of focusing on just one – seems like the way to go.

Multitasking can make you feel important, give you a sense of control, and reduce the pain of a boring task or difficult activity.

But when it comes to true productivity, multitasking fails.

The human brain is a sequential processor: It cannot pay attention to more than one thing at a time. Multitasking is not possible when (1) at least one of the tasks requires focus or effort to complete, and (2) the tasks involve similar types of brain processing.

As Dave Crenshaw explains in The Myth of Multitasking, the most you can do is “switch tasking” (switch back and forth between two or more tasks) and “background tasking” (do two or more mundane tasks like watch TV while you eat or listen to music while you exercise.)

The ability to juggle multiple projects and priorities is key to sustainable success. But it is not to be confused with being an expert multitasker. Having a predilection to multitask can actually fuel problems for you, your organization, your team, your clients/customers, and the community you serve.

Here are 6 reasons to quit multitasking:

1. It gobbles up your time.

The executive who tries to listen to a client on the telephone, check his emails, and give instructions to his assistant all at once might think he is saving time. But because he cannot process three things simultaneously, his attention to each will fade in and out and he will do all poorly.

You lose time when you switch back and forth from one task to the next. Although it might take only a few seconds to stop one and start another, the wasted time adds up. You also lose momentum on any progress you’ve made on the prior task.

 2.    It heightens stress.

Dealing with multiple things at once can make you feel overwhelmed, frazzled and drained. Switching quickly from one task to another overloads your brain and causes it to slow down. This leaves you with more incomplete tasks, which creates more stress.

3.    It makes you more prone to making mistakes.

Studies show that those who try to multitask not only take 50% longer to finish a task, but also make up to 50% more mistakes. Although multitasking is better suited for routine tasks or familiar activities, it leads to errors in all situations.

In Brain Rules, molecular biologist John Medina explains, “Cell-phone talkers are a half-second slower to hit the brakes in emergencies, slower to return to normal speed after an emergency, and more wild in their ‘following distance’ behind the vehicle in front of them.” He notes that talking on the phone while driving is like driving drunk.

4.    It reduces the quality of your work.

Switching tasks requires your brain to refocus and adjust to new stimuli. Full concentration is difficult when you move rapidly from one thing to the next. So the quality of your work suffers.

5.    It does not allow for deep, creative thinking.

Because multitasking keeps your mind busy, drains your energy, and fuels stress, it interferes with creative, higher-level work. When your time is filled with constant activity, interruptions and distractions, you have fewer opportunities to reflect, generate ideas, and brainstorm solutions.

6.    It impairs communication.

If you’re watching TV, typing, texting or dealing with another task, it’s hard to have a meaningful conversation with another person. You cannot process fully what is being said.

A few nights ago, I sat down to watch a TV show with my sister, Trish. A scene that involved two characters engaging in dialogue triggered a memory for her. This led her to start telling me a story about her experience.

Instead of pausing the show or asking Trish to wait until the scene ended, I tried to listen to the two characters and her at the same time. Naturally, I was only able to catch a few words here and there. I didn’t really get what any of them said.

I could have replayed the scene or had Trish repeat her story. But such options are not always available, especially when you’re in a professional setting or when you don’t know the speaker very well.

Diffused attention blocks clear communication and mindful listening, which makes it harder to process new information and build true connections.

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A more effective alternative to multitasking is single-tasking (monotasking). This involves performing tasks sequentially, one at a time, with breaks in between. Focusing on one thing reduces mistakes, lowers stress and increases productivity. Rather than divide your attention among multiple activities and various distractions, you can hone in on your top priorities, one by one.


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Photo by: Collin Key