Too Many Things, So Little Time

Can multitasking really solve it?

Ivana Vargová

How We Work

18 July 2018

We are in a hurry. We want everything. And at the same time! We all do that! That’s why multitasking seems to be an option. A simple definition of multitasking is “carrying on several duties at once”. You might now be imagining a wife who, after a difficult workday, is still able to cook dinner for her loved ones, have a call with her sister, all that while scrolling Instagram. Stereotypically, it is said that multitasking works the best for women. Psychology and researches claim something else. In fact, nobody is good at this. Why’s that?

A recent neuroscience research study tells us that the brain doesn’t really perform tasks simultaneously, like we thought (and probably hoped) it might. We simply can’t think about two things at the same time. Same as we cannot both watch windows popping up in Messenger and focus on switching presentation slides in a meeting. If you can, you’re most likely doing both activities poorly.

In reality, you catch a few words from one and a few words from another conversation while losing the full context of at least one of them.
It is a fact that it is impossible to do two or more tasks that require mental activity at the same time. We can focus on one thing or another, therefore, there are two ways to do our tasks: Do them in a step-by-step sequence or switch between them.

Our attention has a limited capacity, which we can divide into several tasks (e.g. 90% watching the football match and 10% listening to the girlfriend or 40% learning and 60% facebooking). Based on this slightly primitive calculation, our attention is being scattered with each additional activity we attempt. The more the attention is scattered, the worse we focus, and be sure that it impacts the result. Psychologically proven!


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David Meyer, director of The Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan, revealed that multitasking is counterproductive. Switching between tasks causes a brain overload which increases with the difficulty of performed tasks.
The next time you find yourself in a call, trying to juggle listening to your boss and writing an email, know that you’re actually switching back and forth between them, since there’s only one mental and neural channel through which language flows. Switching costs become much more expensive when both tasks require a high level of concentration or utilize the same mental resource.

Also, a research performed by Dr. Janssen and his colleagues from University of London found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced an IQ score decline similar to those who have stayed up all night. Some of the multitasking men had their IQ drop by 15 points, leaving them with the average IQ of an 8-year-old child. A further study by researcher and psychologist Beatriz Arantez shows that multitasking actually increases workers’ errors by 50%!

As always, there are some exceptions. We can drive a car, talk to a passenger, and show a rude gesture to the driver in the car next to us. Or we can bake a cake and call our mom about how long that cake actually needs to be in the oven. Or, the Sleighdogs’ favourite one (according to a survey), cleaning the apartment while brushing teeth. That’s because some of those activities are automatized and need minimal attention or, in other words, they are routine. The question is whether we can do all of these things properly. The answer to that might be a burnt cake, a crashed car, or toothpaste on the ground causing even more time needed for cleaning!

On the other hand, to not only show multitasking in a bad light, there are also situations when it is helpful. Wisely chosen secondary tasks can assist creative productivity. It can help us maintain focus against background processes that might otherwise interrupt us. For example we might be listening to instrumental music to block out ambient noises and conversation while writing an essay in a café.

To summarize, as we can see there are many downsides of multitasking but in the right mixture of tasks it can be effective. To the very end I would like to cite my grandmother who liked to say: rather do (finish) only one thing but properly! So, lets monotask, do less and achieve more!

Extra tip! If you have a problem with focusing on only one thing and still prefer multitasking try the famous hyper-focus method – The Pomodoro Technique developed by Francesco Cirillo. Rather than juggling back and forth between tasks every other minute or so, dedicate chunks of time to a certain task. For example, spend 20 minutes reading the news and then move on to your next task for 20 minutes, and so on. Proven by Sleighdogs!

Multitasking Infographic

Click on the image for full resolution.

multitasking infographic

Creative Commons LizenzvertragReact Infographic by Sleighdogs is licenced under CC 4.0 Attribution. Share and adapt freely.


References:
https://appliedpsychologydegree.usc.edu/resources/articles/to-multitask-or-not-to-multitask/
http://www.umich.edu/~bcalab/articles/CNNArticle2001.pdf
http://www.workwithflow.com/blog/understanding-multitasking/


Article edited by Mirka Voláková
Infographic created by Denis Simonenko & Boris Turek

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