Why multitasking won’t get the job done

Jan 22, 2020

6 mins

Why multitasking won’t get the job done

Did you know that the term multitasking was originally used to refer to how computers work? The fact that a word that stems from the realm of computer engineering is now used to describe human work patterns is worrying. We are not robots, nor computer programs! It’s a modern myth that we can successfully carry out several tasks at the same time.

Yet how many of us can’t help but read text messages while doing something else? Older generations have no qualms in telling us that our concentration levels are plummeting.The digital era and information overload mean that our attention spans are being pushed to the limit by constant interruptions that make them erratic. We behave in exactly the same way at work. We think that we are capable of doing several things at once, in a bid to work faster, but really it just makes the quality of our work suffer. Why are we so desperate to look like Durga, the Hindu goddess with eight arms? Do we have to learn how to do one thing at a time all over again?

Do multitaskers really exist?

Are we all in the same boat?

In the absence of any scientific proof, society created the misconception that women are better at multitasking than men. Wasn’t it highly convenient to think of the lady of the house as the most adept at getting dinner ready while keeping an eye on the children and running a bath? It convinced women that their place was in the home and not at the office.

However, this cliché was disproved by an experiment led by Patricia Hirsch at Aachen University in Germany in 2019. Researchers asked 48 men and 48 women to carry out two ranking tasks simultaneously: participants had to classify vowels and consonants by pressing a button with their index finger on one hand while classifying odd and even numbers with their middle finger on the other hand. It turns out that we all manage several tasks at the same time badly.

In fact, even those who claim to be multitaskers are probably not that efficient. An American study looked at the use of mobile phones while driving in 2013. The researchers asked 200 participants to take the OSpan test—the Operation span test requires memorising a series of words while solving mathematical equations—while driving in a simulator. The results were unimpressive, to say the least.

What’s the scientific viewpoint?

Doing several things at once is overstimulating and encourages some people to seek out extreme sensations, which makes them more impulsive. However, these personality types are also the most easily distracted, which makes them the least capable of juggling several tasks at once.

The earliest explanation of this phenomenon dates back to 1992 when the psychologist Hal Pashler searched for a “cognitive bottleneck” in the human brain. This rather primitive term refers to the way that all the information we take in stacks up and at a certain point it is no longer treated with the same level of importance. This means that the amount of time needed to process each piece of information gets longer. Consequently, those who think that they are multitasking are really just juggling multiple tasks and the amount of time required to jump from one task to another increases dramatically.

So does multitasking really exist? Professor David Strayer is a renowned psychologist who specialises in attention and performance. His research found that 2.7% of us have the ability to do several things at the same time without it affecting our performance. He believes that supertaskers exist, but they are dispersed among the population in the same way as those who have a high IQ: most of us have an average level but a very small percentage are at the higher end of the scale.

All this could lead you to believe that the part of the brain related to cognitive processing and attention span is constantly in demand among multitaskers, however MRI scans show low activity in the prefrontal cortex (the area in charge of our attention span) when several tasks are performed simultaneously. In some way, multitaskers’ brains manage to remain calm, which makes them perform better.

For now, in any case, very few of us possess a brain capable of this kind of efficiency. Even worse, jumping back and forth from one task to another or performing several at the same time could actually dumb us down! A York University study found that on a comprehension test, students multitasking on a laptop in class scored 11% lower than those who weren’t—and even those in view of a multitasker scored lower.

How to resist the temptation of multitasking

There are good grounds for believing that you are at your most effective working in single-task mode. So how can we avoid falling back into temptation and finally break free from our multitasking habit? Here are a few tips to help you to avoid spreading yourself too thin. It takes a lot of effort to concentrate when you are surrounded by flickering screens, but as the saying goes, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

1. Set aside a few moments to disconnect during the day

We act as if we are effective multitaskers, however we are constantly being interrupted by phone calls, emails, and breaking news, social network and instant messaging notifications. These distractions occur all the time thanks to the widespread use of smartphones. Be bold and log out sometimes; that way you avoid temptation. The best thing to do is stay away from screens altogether. They can distract you even when they are switched off, according to a study published in 2017. Are you reading a complex book? Then put your laptop away, put your phone on flight mode or hide it, and for the most daring among us, turn off the wifi. Disappearing for a few hours probably won’t have too many dramatic consequences. Manage your day by designating yourself certain times to surf the web or to answer messages. Treat yourself to these moments at a specific time during the day—for example, at the very beginning, at the end of lunch or early afternoon.

2. Declutter your workspace

Minimalism is on-trend for a reason. It is worth noting that the way a workspace is set up influences your state of mind and productivity. Do you feel overwhelmed? Get rid of anything that could distract you. Remove any objects that could sidetrack you such as open notebooks, snacks or a mobile phone. A clean, tidy desk can go a long way in helping you focus effectively on one task at a time. Even if you are naturally messy, surrounding yourself with just the bare necessities will keep you focused on the task at hand.

3. Make to-do lists

They have psychological benefits! Writing everything you have to do on a piece of paper and then gradually ticking each task off one by one provides a great sense of satisfaction. By providing structure, to-do lists reduce anxiety and create a sense of achievement; psychologists agree that they are reliable allies. An American study even argued that not noting down objectives makes us more absent-minded. However, be realistic and don’t put down things like “write a script”. When it comes to big jobs, split them up into several steps.

4. Use a timer

In the late 1980s, an Italian researcher established a simple time management method based on the idea that regular breaks promote intellectual agility. Francesco Cirillo’s Pomodoro Technique consists of giving yourself a five-minute break after 25 minutes of work. Set a timer for 25 minutes or download an app such as Flat Tomato, which tells you when to take a break. This will help you to work on one single task until the alarm rings.

5. Do some mental exercises

Stop yourself jumping from one task to another without finishing the first one by training yourself to focus on one thing at a time. For example, try staring at an object and examining it in detail for several minutes. Or you could imagine a scenic view in detail, recall a fond memory at length or paint a mental picture of a loved one in your head. Alternatively, try writing down your dreams. If you are a fan of numbers, do some arithmetic.

In the 19th century, Swiss doctor Roger Vittoz came up with several techniques to help us stay calm and focused. For example, use an index finger to trace the infinity symbol, starting in the middle, and then repeat with the other hand. Do it again, but this time with your eyes closed. Lastly, just trace the sign out in your head.

6. Focus on the present

Be mindful when you are doing the dishes, walk slowly, dedicate half an hour to breakfast and use all your senses. Focus of the taste of your coffee or the temperature of your shower. Being receptive to sensations, such as how the sun feels on your skin, encourages the mind to concentrate on the here and now.

7. Breathe slowly and clear your mind

If you tend to multitask, it’s probably because you have trouble concentrating. Meditation and breathing exercises are quick, simple methods that can improve your mental performance. By gathering your thoughts, you reduce the chance of having stray ones. According to a recent study, just ten minutes of meditation a day makes us more efficient. Other neuroscience work carried out at Trinity College Dublin in 2018 found a direct link between yogic breathing techniques and meditation, and the release of the concentration hormone noradrenaline.

If you have managed to read this article right up to the end without opening a new tab, replying to a text message or answering a colleague’s question, then you are on the right track! If you haven’t, it’s ok. Just start again from the beginning…

Translated by Mildred Dauvin

Photo by WTTJ

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