The Myth of Multitasking

For a long time now, I have been goading myself to write a blog on multitasking. But I must admit that it took several months and a book that shares it’s name with the title of this blog to put pen to paper. So, in a way, I’m thankful to the author Dave Crenshaw for inadvertently helping me write this piece.

Societies can multitask, corporations can multitask but we, as human beings – can we multitask? Certainly, it has become almost cliched now to see this term on resumes and short descriptions of professional backgrounds. “Effective multitasker” or “proven multitasker” or capable “multitasker”. Maybe you have it on your CV as well. Some managers insist, while hiring, they need only multi taskers. So much so, that in today’s fiercely competitive environment it feels like a losing proposition if you don’t multitask.

But very few of us know that there is no such thing as multitasking. Sure, all of this, in our usual workday are required to do a variety of different tasks and its all legit as they form part of our job profile. But think about it deeply – are you really multitasking? Maybe a few examples might help here – if you’re typing an email, are you reading another at the same time or are you in the middle of meeting or if you’re intensely researching on topic are you simultaneously reviewing the performance appraisal of a subordinate? Truth is, no matter, how caught up you are in the middle of a myriad of activities, you are still doing on one at any given time. If you’re typing, you’re not speaking (to others) or if you’re in a meeting you’re not researching.

So, how do we explain the fact that we all are busy the whole day not doing just one thing but many different things. Dave Crenshaw introduces a valid term “switch tasking”. This term simply means switching between your tasks back and forth until one of them is done and then you pick another one which replaces that one that is done. So, if you’re writing an email, you stop to make a call, and after you put the phone down you go back to typing. If you’re busy making a proposal to client and a colleague enters your cabin asking for assistance – most likely you first attend to her and then go back to drafting your proposal. These are everyday examples of switch taking – because are always switching between A to B to C to A to B……

Studies show the human brain simply isn’t capable of paying full attention to more than one thing. In fact, our brain has evolved to single-task, or only think about one thing at a time. We think we’re adeptly at juggling multiple tasks, even if that isn’t quite the case. Staunch believers in multitasking will argue that multitasking gets more done. In fact, it’s the opposite. Research done by Dr. Meyer and Dr. Rubinstein showed that even these brief mental blocks that happen as a result of context switching cost as much as 40% of someone’s productive time. Because it takes mental effort to switch between cognitive tasks, multitasking affects your ability to get work done efficiently and effectively.

How long can you go without checking email, or glancing at your smartphone while you are at work? Clifford Nass, a psychology professor at Stanford University, says today’s nonstop multitasking actually wastes more time than it saves—and he says there’s evidence it may be killing our concentration and creativity too. Clifford says, “People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand.”

So, multitasking isn’t just bad for your productivity—it’s also bad for your mental health. According to research, seven in ten knowledge workers (71%) experienced burnout at least once in the last year. But burnout and multitasking go hand in hand. In the same survey, it was found that two- thirds (65%) of people who feel uncomfortable not having access to their phones report experiencing burnout, compared to 45% of people who aren’t uncomfortable being separated from their device.

Yes, we are capable of doing two things at the same time. It is possible, for example, to watch TV while having dinner or to listen to music while in you’re car or out on a run. What is impossible, however, is concentrating on two tasks at once.

Multitasking forces your brain to switch back and forth very quickly from one task to another. This wouldn’t be a big deal if the human brain could transition seamlessly from one job to the next, but it can’t. Multitasking forces you to pay a mental price each time you interrupt one task and jump to another. In psychology terms, this mental price is called the switching cost.

Switching cost is the disruption in performance that we experience when we switch our attention from one task to another. A 2003 study published in the International Journal of Information Management found that the typical person checks email once every five minutes and that, on average, it takes 64 seconds to resume the previous task after checking your email. In other words, because of email alone, we typically waste one out of every six minutes.

The tricky thing is while you may recognize the downfalls of multitasking, it can be difficult to quit because the practice is so ingrained in our work and personal life. Here are some tips for breaking the habit. So, is a silver line? There sure is. I’ll write about some simple ways to beat multi-tasking while still not compromising on your deliverables at work and in personal life. Standby…

Honest admission: in the time I took to write this blog, I sent two short messages on Skype to my colleagues and probably lost about a minute in switching.

Enquiry Form
Enquiry Form