Julius Caesar was the first person praised for his ability to do several tasks simultaneously. He could write, read and give orders at the same time, which made his contemporaries look at him in awe. Nowadays any office worker, high school student or stay-at-home mom could probably teach Caesar a trick or too about doing multiple tasks at the same time. Multitasking is not considered a rare gift anymore, rather a necessity.
We eat our breakfast, while reading a morning paper. Answer our cell phone while driving. And easily flick between checking our email, following links on Twitter and chatting on Facebook.
Many people consider multitasking the ultimate evil. I disagree. In some situations multitasking can be an efficient way of getting minor tasks out of the way ASAP (given that you do not have to do an outstanding job on any of them). I do not see anything wrong with chatting to my friend while doing grocery shopping, or cooking while listening to my favorite CD and dancing along. Multitasking can make some routine tasks more fun. It also lets us use our downtime productively (like waiting for a doctor’s appointment and planning our next week’s schedule). The true problem is not the concept of multitasking per se, but the way we use it and overuse it!
Downside of Multitasking.
In the movies we often see successful business man and business woman, scanning sales reports while talking on the phone and giving out short orders to the secretary. These people exude power, self-control and organization. Their actions are mesmerizing. They look much cooler than anyone who is able to concentrate on just one task at a time. And it is not only my personal impression. Multitaskers have convinced themselves and everyone else that they are great and highly efficient at what they do.
In fact there was a whole study conducted at Stanford University by the research team of Eyal Ophir, Anthony Wagner and Professor Nass dedicated to identifying the rare cognitive qualities mutitaskers possessed that made them so great at doing several tasks simultaneously. The study tested 100 college students rated high or low at multitasking. Results of multiple trials were shocking even to the scientists themselves.
It turned out that people who manage to juggle two-three tasks at once pay a big mental price for their “gift”: 1) Their focus suffers; 2) They are easily distracted and 3) they are weaker at shifting from one task to another, which meant that they are worse at multitasking than any person who is dreadful at multitasking!
These results became less surprising as scientists discovered additional facts about the way our brain works. We simply cannot focus on two tasks simultaneously. When we think that we multitask all we do is switch our attention rapidly from one task to another. By dividing our focus between multiple tasks, we let the quality of our work suffer.
We have no time to reflect back on our work, to think of what we could have improved or to analyze mistakes that we have made. Not only that, we waste about 40% more time moving back and forth between tasks, because we continuously have to remind ourselves of where we were when we left off.
If you are still unconvinced that multitasking slows you down and decreases your productivity and performance, think of the last time you had a conversation with a person who was clearly typing something while talking to you? Annoying isn’t it?
Find your balance!
Realistically, it is not always possible to concentrate on one task at a time and only then move to a next one. You will inevitably have to face multiple stimuli at the same time and switch your attention from one task to another. If fact, there are some situations when we cannot NOT multitask. And it is not necessarily a bad thing.
In order to be highly productive we need to master both – an ability to quickly switch our attention from one task to another (scan a large piece of text and give our opinion on it) and an ability to concentrate fully on the task at hand (when we want to get into the state of “creative flow”). Balance is the key!
Dedicate your full attention to the goals that are important in your life and feel free to mix and match tasks of lesser importance that seem dull and timely!
Your first step to a balanced, more fulfilling life…
A lot of people are aware that multitasking could be damaging for their productivity. But there is another huge hidden problem that has nothing to do with work. I am talking about your personal life. Because of multitasking your relationships with other people may gradually become more and more superficial.
Do you know that feeling when someone asks you “How are you?” or “How was your day?” without really paying attention to your answer? Or when you are having dinner with your friend or your spouse and they are constantly answering the phone leaving you to stare out of the window and wishing you were somewhere else? And how often are you, yourself, doing it? It is impossible to have a meaningful conversation with a person or show them how much they mean to you, if you are constantly distracted or interrupted by someone or something.
Therefore, if you are used to having twenty tabs open on your computer, chatting with three-five people simultaneously – by all means do it! I ask just one thing of you! Starting today, when you are with someone that you care about – forget about work, mute your TV for a second, stop mentally going through your do-to list and give that person your FULL and UNDIVIDED attention! Deal?