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The Myth of Multitasking

Multitasking student

Think you are good at doing several things at once? Emailing during a webinar? Texting while sitting in a meeting? 

Think again…

The daily hustle and bustle has become a regular way of life for many individuals, including myself––so much so that we describe our effort to meet all pressing demands simultaneously as multitasking. Multitasking is now shorthand for the human attempt to do as many things as possible concurrently, quickly, and while using technology.

The current digital age has increased the ease of access to information, and all this is held in the palm of our hands 24/7. People can check sport scores, stock performances, weather, and find directions, all while working, or in my case, writing this blog. However, the constant and fast transfer of information in this digital age has led to short-attention spans, with the average human attention span now being shorter than a goldfish. A recent study by Microsoft found that the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds today. It is reported that goldfish have a nine-second attention span (Ebstein). With each new smartphone, social media platform, and phone application, it is much easier to be consumed with multiple distractions at once. 

Smartphones, which have more than half a million apps and grows daily, provides various tools to access information within seconds. This easy access to information has made the average individual quite bored and has sent them searching for more things to do. So, the question is – is it really multitasking, or is it multiboredom?

People who constantly multitask show an enormous range of deficits and are known to perform poorly in several cognitive tasks, including multitasking. Professor Nass at Stanford recently did a study on multitasking and “his research shows that chronic multitasking — switching back and forth between types of interactive media — makes us worse students, worse workers, worse managers, and all-around less sensitive people (Lobello).” I think we have all been guilty of listening to music in the background while tackling homework or writing a paper. Hence, people who are believed to be very effective with multitasking are wrong, they cannot focus fully on both tasks at the same time. 

It is true that a human brain cannot give one hundred percent of focus to more than two tasks at the same time because it puts too much stress on the brain. Just imagine a time where you were doing multiple projects at once, how did you handle that? For me, while I claim to be an amazing multitasker every day, it still comes to prioritizing and tackling one task at a time. Concentration on one task without distractions is the most effective way to complete a task rather than doing two at once.

In today’s day and age, sometimes I feel we are forced to multitask, or we think we are multitasking, but our overwhelmed selves are just trying to tackle everything at once. This is because the current work culture can make us feel that if we don’t do it all, we won’t have the job or we won’t be recognized. For the most part, multitasking dramatically decreases your productivity, quality of work, and augments the stress level of employees at workplace. Stress has a negative impact on the mental and physical health of employees and can cause heart ailment.

Multitasking Culture and Workplace Distraction 

Several studies have assessed the negative impact of multitasking (i.e., information overload) in an office environment. Many managers, as well as employees, believe that there is nothing wrong with doing two or more things at the same time. I have been guilty of that as well, especially with a large amount of work and pressing deadlines, there is usually no time to waste. Thus, multitasking becomes a must. After all, we believe that when switching between two or more tasks, more work gets done faster. 

Does it really, though? 

Employers for many decades have been encouraging multitasking because they see it as a way of increasing productivity, but sometimes it may do more harm than good. Several studies have shown that frequent multitaskers have greater problems focusing on important and complicated tasks, memory impairment of new subject matter, difficulty learning new material, and increased stress levels. It is important for companies to note that employee productivity is directly related to the number of tasks performed simultaneously. As the number of tasks rise, the decision-making ability of an employee decreases.

While we are constantly multitasking at work, being “in the zone” never happens. Being in the zone is described by many creatives as a magical time. It means that you forget about the world around you, all sounds disappear, and the time speeds up. Suddenly, you figure out it is evening, and it feels as if you worked only an hour when, in fact, hours have passed by. When you are “in the zone,” you are fully involved as well as immersed in performing the task. You are focused, happy, productive, and it’s all effortless. 

It’s important as students and as employees that you experience being in the zone as often as possible. This way, you will perform with excellence, be happy and satisfied about what they do, and actually enjoy your time at work. Thus, you’ll be less likely to quit your job, put away your work, or suffer from work depression. Unfortunately, the “zone” gets sidelined when you are multitasking. To perform at your max capacity, you’ll need to get rid of all distractions and focus on one, single task––only then can you be highly productive and creative. 

For employers, give your employees more freedom by allowing your employees to plan their days; offer them flexible schedules. This way they will be able to finish their work when it is most productive for them, and it can assist in reducing their stress.

If not multitasking, then what?

Think you got a lot on your plate? Don’t worry, you can still deliver all of it without multitasking, even if multitasking has become a consistent habit. Instead, change it with a better habit — effective time management skills. Start with the basics: 

  1. Creating a realistic to-do list and work schedule
    Writing out realistic to-do lists or using online organizational tools, such as Excel or Trello or ClickUp, can help you manage your workload. If you leave your to-do list to memory, then you are forced to multitask, and it is more likely that you will forget something crucial.
  2. Give yourself enough time to complete your tasks
    It is very important to recognize how long it will take you to complete a task to the best possible standard, so you are managing the expectations ahead of time and adding buffer time. Multitasking of course causes unnecessary stress if you are doing too much at once, and not giving yourself enough time to finish your tasks. Be sure to set realistic time frames.
  3. Plan your week day-by-day, organizing your tasks according to importance and urgency daily 
    After you have prioritized your tasks, map out a schedule for the week. This will ensure that you have a plan in place for the tasks you will need to complete. Then each morning you can prioritize the tasks by importance and allocate time to focus on them. 
  4. Breaking down challenging tasks into manageable portions
    Some tasks can just look challenging when first assigned, so it is important to break them down into portions that you will be able to handle. This way you will be able to focus on one portion at a time and check off the list of tasks. It won’t look so scary after all. 
  5. Communicate expectations clearly with your peers and employers
    Sometimes we take on more than we can handle, and I am guilty of that also. Hence, it is important to set expectations beforehand for what we can handle during that time. It takes a lot of courage to ask for help, but don’t be afraid to ask for help for your mental health. 
  6. Let go off the gas pedal once in a while. Allow yourself some slow periods and take breaks 
    Working continuously throughout the day is not the best way to complete tasks with a high standard. Make sure you give yourself short breaks during the day. After this, you might find that you can identify errors that you might not have noticed otherwise.

Every individual perceives multitasking differently––some positively and some negatively. Every day I wish I had more hours to complete my to-do-list, but that isn’t something we can change…but what we can do is be effective in our time management, make the best out of our day, and remember to relax. Next time you find yourself juggling simultaneous tasks at work, take a pause. Give your undivided attention to one project at a time and you will find your quality of work and efficiency increase greatly.