With the winter holidays upon us, we may feel the additional pressure to go, go, go: making holiday cookies, selecting gifts, getting twinkly lights up, seeing family and friends—all on top of our everyday lives, a mile-long to-do list, and what may feel like perpetual busyness. While your natural inclination may be to multitask and make it all happen, a smile plastered on your face all the way to the finish line, let’s pause for a moment and consider: is multitasking a healthy way to live?
What Is Multitasking?
Before we look at whether multitasking is a healthy habit, we need to define what multitasking is. Multitasking is, essentially, the performance of more than one task simultaneously. We all know what that looks like: wrapping up an email while we talk on the phone, responding to an instant message while we’re on a Zoom conference call.
A 2017 study published in Applied Ergonomics delves further in and differentiates between three types of multitasking:
Concurrent multitasking is when you conduct two or more tasks at the same time.
Interleaved multitasking, or task switching, is when you switch between two or more tasks as they develop.
Combined multitasking is a combination of the two types above; it is when you execute two or more tasks concurrently while switching between tasks as they develop.
In general, when folks refer to multitasking, they are referring to combined multitasking.
Is Multitasking Bad for You?
With job descriptions routinely advertising for employees who can juggle multiple tasks and lives that seem to get busier and busier, multitasking can seem like a knee-jerk response to getting more done in a day. It’s worthwhile, however, to pause and look at the research done on time management techniques and consider whether multitasking is a healthy or unhealthy practice to partake in.
People who multitask are less efficient than those who focus on one project at a time, according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. In fact, Stanford University studies show that productivity can be reduced by as much as 40% when we multitask. With substandard results in our performance, why do we persist in our attempts to multitask, and continue to believe it’s an efficient, productive way to work when, in fact, it’s not?
When you multitask, it seems like you’re accomplishing many things at the same time. But rather than getting more done, what you are really doing is quickly shifting your attention and focus from one thing to the next. It’s this switching, or interleaved multitasking, that slows you down and stresses you out.
How Does Task Switching Affect Me?
Multitasking is managed by your brain’s executive functions, which determine how, when, and in what order tasks are done. There are two stages to the executive control process: goal shifting (deciding to do one thing instead of another) and rule activation (changing from one task’s rules to the rules for a new task). When you multitask, you incur what psychologists call “task switch costs,” or the negative effects resulting from switching among tasks.
Research has shown that when we grow accustomed to frequent interruptions, we develop a short attention span and even begin to self-interrupt, which leads to a longer-term problem, as it extends the amount of time needed to finish tasks.
What Happens When I Multitask?
People tend to overestimate their ability to multitask, and those who multitask the most demonstrate more impulsivity, less executive control, are more easily distracted, and tend to downplay the negative effects of their behavior.
Intense multitasking can induce a stress response, according to Dr. David Meyer, a psychology professor and codirector of the Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan. This further degrades cognitive processing, says Dr. Jeff Comer.
Multitasking results in:
- Diminished ability to concentrate
- Decreased ability to pay attention to details
- Lower competency in organization skills
- Being perceived as disrespectful
- Delayed task-completion
- Increase in stress
- Increased impulsiveness
- Lower recall
- More frequent memory lapses
- More frequent accidents and errors
- May worsen work and/or school performance
The Importance of Breaks
Guess what? Multitasking makes us very tired. By quickly switching between activities, even minor ones, we use up our precious supplies of oxygenated glucose in our brains—the very same fuel we need to focus on a task! To compensate, many folks reach for more coffee (caffeine), more food—in other words, more energy. Instead, Dr. Daniel Levitin, professor of behavioral neuroscience at McGill University, speaks to the benefit of regular breaks. When we take 15-minute breaks every couple of hours and allow our minds to truly wander, we’re more productive. Your brain is, after all, a muscle, and it needs time to rest and recover after it’s worked out.
One way to think about multitasking is purposefully giving ourselves distractions in the form of other tasks. But switching tasks is stressful, and on average it takes us twenty-three minutes to return to our work when we’re interrupted, according to Dr. Gloria Mark at the University of California, Irvine. To avoid that switch-induced delay caused by multitasking, she advises “chunking” your time. Also known as time blocking, monotasking, or single-tasking, this method of scheduling your day can give you a sense of control over your time and make you more productive.
What Is Single-Tasking?
Single-tasking is the opposite of multitasking. With single-tasking, you balance competing tasks. When you become a single-tasker, you are filtering tasks, determining priorities, setting goals, and completing the many items on your to-do list. You maximize your productivity by setting aside specific times for completing your most important work. You can do this by focusing on creating a prioritized to-do list and then time blocking.
Single-tasking (aka time blocking) is a time management technique that is as simple as it sounds: block off a period of time to complete a particular task. By setting aside specific times to respond to emails, return calls, and focus on important projects throughout your day, you can improve your focus and deter any tendency you might have to procrastinate. Best yet, at the end of the day, you’ll feel like you accomplished something—because you likely did!
As we move through the hectic holiday season, consider taking a break from multitasking and purposefully engage in a time management technique that will reduce stress, improve your focus, and help you happily, healthfully conquer your never-ending to-dos.
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