Multitasking – a recipe for success or an illusion?
March 8, 2021
Many of us have probably noticed numerous headlines urging us to increase efficiency, train divided attention and multitask – to keep up with the fast-paced world. According to the assumptions, the measure of success is to do as much as possible simultaneously. At first glance, multitasking may seem like the right productivity strategy. But is that really so?
In popular culture, multitasking is seen as a valuable skill that contributes to productivity, both at work and in relationships and personal life. However, the truth indicates a different theory. The human brain is unable to focus on multiple tasks at once. Thus, multi-doing neither facilitates private life, nor is it a passport to a career.
Table of Contents:
Multitasking – how the idea started?
It all started in 1965 when IBM introduced the idea of multitasking to the capabilities of their computer. It meant that the machine was able to process multiple tasks at the same time. Several decades have passed since then, and the concept has become common outside the IT domain – it has begun to be used in the human context.
However, there is a difference between human and computer multitasking – computers were made for it, and the human brain was not. Despite its greatness and power, the brain has some limitations. For a human being, multitasking means switching tasks at the level of brain connections. Of course, there are situations where we have more than one priority at a time. Though, from a scientific point of view, multitasking does more harm than good and is not fruitful.
Multitasking in scientific research
Research from the University of California has shown that multitasking limits the human brain’s ability to absorb information. And scientists from London have found that multitasking reduces human cognitive skills. If, in the long run, the brain is working on several tasks at the same time, it behaves like the brain of a person after a sleepless night, in some cases lowering IQ by up to 10 points. As if that were not enough, new research suggests that multitasking may cause cognitive impairment.
In addition to the enormous stress of multi-doing, it can have adverse health effects. French studies have shown that employees who have access to their company’s e-mail at all times also have a constantly increased heart rate. This means that they are always in an alert state, i.e. stress, which in the long run reduces their productivity. Multitasking is actually a myth. Our brains can’t do two things at once. They only switch between tasks quickly, straining your attention, memory and focus.
“Do three things well, not ten things badly.” – David Seagrove
In most countries around the world writing text messages while driving is prohibited. This law was created as a result of scientific research. According to the DMV, almost 26% of all collisions in the US were caused by texting. It generates around 1,000 injuries each day. G. Keller and J. Papasan also described this mechanism in the book One Thing. They found that an apparently innocent telephone conversation not only absorbs 40% of the driver’s attention but can have consequences similar to drunk driving.
Multitasking in the workplace
It’s hard to escape from multitasking at work. Teamwork, contact with many customers simultaneously (and everyone interested not only in a different product but requires an individual approach), urgent deadlines due yesterday and new tasks appearing during the day – at a pace directly proportional to the number of coffees drunk. You feel that you have to deal with all challenges quickly, now, immediately and, of course, flawlessly.
At the same time, many scientific studies show that juggling several tasks at once reduces productivity in the work environment. You cannot give 100% attention to a single task when you have many, and trying to adapt to such a situation can negatively affect each job’s performance and quality. Multitasking, therefore, results in a lack of both productivity and efficiency.
In 2017, thanks to Human Power, the report Work, power, energy in Polish companies was published, which confirmed that multitasking has a negative impact on work time and efficiency. It showed that our brains are not programmed to perform several activities simultaneously (apart from the simplest ones, called habitual). The report contains a lot of exciting and thought-provoking data, such as:
- trying to master multitasking to perfection, Polish employees lose as much as 30% of the day to perform activities that do not bring any results;
- 28% of respondents could not remember what they did the previous day;
- 42% of respondents admitted that they have problems focusing on their interlocutor (co-worker or client) because they perform several other tasks simultaneously.
Multitasking in the work of software engineers
Software engineers spend a lot of time not creating software. According to a survey conducted by developer tools provider Electric Cloud several years ago, administrative tasks, brainstorming, e-mail, meetings, and waiting for builds and tests to complete take about 22 hours a week. They have approximately 19 hours left to develop software.
They actively work on the project and provide support for 1–3 projects that they have already completed. This leaves little time to focus on one project or task. This kind of simultaneous work is almost impossible because the brain cannot process separate sets of information with the same dedication. As a result, none of the tasks is performed with the expected quality, and you may experience a 40% drop in performance.
Multitasking and cognitive costs
It’s hard to argue with the idea that everyone knows how to walk and talk at the same time; prepare dinner and watch the news; talk on the phone and look at the movie. Examples go on and on, and they show, that people are able to do many things simultaneously. There is, however, the problem that we bear the cognitive costs of doing so every time.
Our mind cannot concentrate all its power on several tasks at once. What does it look like in the workplace? In a work environment, the potential for development depends entirely on the ability to learn. Learning any new skill takes focus and practice that requires 100% of one’s attention. The bigger learning capability someone possesses, the more responsibility they can take on.
If one has multiple projects at once there is no time left to learn the project-related skills. Besides, when we have to complete many of them within a specific interval, stress arises, which may lower our work quality.
Doing a few things that require attention and focus increases cortisol production (the stress hormone) and adrenaline (responsible for the body’s response to a threat), which can overstimulate our brain and make it difficult to think clearly.
“When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.” – Earl Miller, neuroscientist
Multitasking and the work of our brain
Even when performing one task, both complementary hemispheres are involved. So when we work on several simultaneously, it is logical that we will have certain limitations and disorders of the brain.
Dr Etienne Koechlin of the Institut National de la Sante et de la Recherche Medicale (INSERM) in Paris discovered that the cortex works differently when we do one task and when we do several at once.
In his opinion, the brain can assign two functions to two regions, and each of them will do its job well. But when the third command is to be carried out, there is no third centre to deal with it. Both parts of the cortex work extremely hard to complete the job, but they don’t do it very well. Hence the mistakes and sluggishness.
“So you can dust off and talk on the phone at the same time, but it would be complicated to do something third.” – dr Etienne Koechlin
He adds: “So you can dust off and talk on the phone at the same time, but it would be complicated to do something third.” Which means that our brain – and thus us – does not perform activities simultaneously but switches more or less efficiently between one and the other. There is only a small group of people whose brain works slightly differently.
The truths and myths of performance
The truth is, we live in a rapidly changing reality, and we need to be incredibly flexible when it comes to managing productivity. Increasing it at work often becomes a top priority.
However, the methods of obtaining it can be both difficult and harmful. Not wanting to risk their reputation, the employee makes an extra effort. They assume that they can do several things at once. However, it is not as efficient as it seems.
There is a limit which when crossed can harm productivity, and this is where multitasking can be more damaging than constructive. We undertake many tasks, but from an excess of them we quickly burn out and find that we end up doing nothing well.
“You need a lot more time to complete a task, you make more mistakes, and your stress levels increase at the same time.” – Dave Crenshaw, author of The Myth of Multitasking
In fact, being productive means having the right pace and planning your time. It is a competence we should master, but to some extent. So before we start working on one or more projects, it’s worth planning everything so that each task gets the attention it deserves. If we do each of the tasks, in turn, it may turn out that we have both energy and time for everything. Therefore, single-tasking in the moment is more beneficial than multitasking.
Single-tasking – why is it better?
Focusing on one topic in a given day is the first and foremost way to increase productivity and efficiency. By even working on several projects at the same time but spreading them one by one, we make them better. What’s more:
- our focus is at its highest, thanks to which we work faster and more efficiently;
- it is easier for us to solve problems when we work within one topic;
- we don’t think about the fact that in a moment we have to change the path of work and move to another project;
- it makes us calmer and therefore also more motivated to work;
- we increase our creativity and ingenuity;
- it is more possible to achieve better results in a much shorter time;
- we bring the tasks to an end.
Supertaskers – who are they, and how do they work?
While most people have to put in extra effort to divide their attention into multiple tasks, which often fails, approximately 2.5% of the population does not have this problem. People call them supertaskers. They perform better in multitasking than in one task because they have:
- a different brain than the rest of the population;
- high level of attention control;
- cognitive ability to work on multiple tasks simultaneously – without making mistakes or taking breaks;
- ability to make immediate decisions under stress;
- better self-control when working under heavy loads.
However, super-taskers represent a small part of our population. So what should most of us do to avoid multitasking and work more efficiently?
9 tips to avoid multitasking and stay productive
- organise and plan ahead;
- build a strategy and task management plan;
- don’t fill your schedule with too many tasks at once;
- create a to-do list and keep track of it throughout the day;
- ensure maximum attention and concentration;
- take breaks at work – it will help you refresh your mind and gain a new perspective;
- before proceeding to the next task, make sure that you completed the previous one;
- manage your tasks efficiently and on time;
- learn to say “no”.
Attempting to perform several tasks – multitasking – can result in a lower concentration. And this causes an impaired processing and reduced ability to retain new information in memory. If you want to avoid it, make sure you follow all the steps mentioned above. Once you implement the good habits into your work, we assure you that the single-tasking will become your routine in no time.