We've all done it. Texting whilst walking. Two simple tasks you'd think we could do concurrently. In fact, even trying to put one foot in front of the other whilst messaging causes over 11,000 injuries a year. It's a multitasking myth! These habits not only cause us physical injury but also mental overload.
So if you think multitasking is the solution to getting more done than think again. In fact, attempting to multitask may be making your working day more inefficient.
We all know people who appear to be able to juggle multiple projects at the same time. You’ll have heard the expression, ‘women are better at multitasking than men’. These statements have entered common parlance, but when it comes to looking at whether they are true the evidence is very different.
What is multitasking?
Broadly speaking multitasking is:
- Performing two tasks at the same time
- Rapidly switching from one task to another and back again
- Performing multiple tasks in quick succession
Studies show that when we ‘multitask' the brain is actually performing two separate functions. Firstly, ‘goal shifting' where the brain decides what the next activity requires and secondly, ‘role activation' where the brain controls the activities required to fulfil the new task. The time it takes for these two functions to occur is infinitesimal. However, when multitasking the time adds up and for those people who constantly multitask this not only decreases productivity but reduces effectiveness and efficiency. Some studies show that productivity can drop by up to 40%.
Additionally, the more frequently you multitask the worse it gets. As your brain becomes ‘used' to flicking from one task to another so your concentration span reduces.
Multitasking myth dangers
Multitasking in a safe place such as writing whilst listening to music is one thing. On the other hand, driving on a motorway with the distraction of talking on a phone may be fatal.
In the workplace, multitasking eats into the working day. Take for example writing a report on your computer and having your email and social media notifications switched on. Every time you see or hear a notification it is almost impossible to ignore it. Many people think that switching from Word to Facebook and back again is multitasking. In fact, the brain is turning off writing mode, turning on reading mode and then reversing the process. Whilst this takes seemingly no time at all it is actually slowing us down in completing the important report writing.
Multitasking takes us out of what’s called flow. Flow is where you don’t notice time passing. This is where you look at the clock and only then realise you’ve missed lunch and it’s halfway through the afternoon. My father who’s a sculptor gets into a state of flow where he is so focused on what he’s doing that time just passes him by. Very often when we enjoy our work, flow comes easily
Situations where multitasking is possible
Fortunately, there are some activities we do habitually where we aren’t employing our conscious mind. Breathing is one! We don’t even think about it – it’s involuntary.
Other activities which are habitable but not involuntary are activities we have performed so often that we don’t give them a second thought. Have you ever driven to a familiar place along roads you know like the back of your hand and realised when you arrive that you don’t remember the journey at all. Either your mind drifted off onto your latest project or you were singing along to the radio or listening to a play. Driving was being carried out subconsciously but if you’d had to brake suddenly behind a slow car you would have been able to switch into conscious driving (with any luck!)
Other situations where you can undertake tasks without any effort or active thinking are domestic chores such as ironing, cleaning or cooking. I find gardening a great activity for giving me time to think or listen to training audio or podcast.
In these circumstances, you are multitasking combining unconscious activities with active thinking or listening. Another example is people who can knit and watch television. These tasks undertaken at the same time are using very different parts of the brain and therefore are definitely come under the heading of multitasking.
The Solution to the pressure to get things done
Here is my 10-step guide to getting things done without feeling like a coiled spring and trusting the multitasking myth rather than being organised.
- Plan your week on a Sunday
- Focus on the 80% of tasks that are really important
- Select one important task and complete it at your optimal time of day
- Batch similar tasks
- Turn off technology
- Work in sprints and take regular breaks
- Reduce emails and meetings
- Schedule social media and screen time
- At the end of the day reflect on what you have achieved not what is still on the to-do list.
How do you get it all done? Do you believe in the multitasking myth? Leave us our tips in the comments below.
Until next time….I'm off to my juggling class!