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Why Multitasking Just Won’t Work

Think about all the things you might be doing right now—reading this blog, listening to music, checking your email in another browser tab, texting a friend or playing a computer game.

If you are doing several different things at once, you may think you are multitasking. Can people really multitask? The answer is NO! Multitasking is a myth!

In this article we’ll examine some of the issues associated with multitasking and why we shouldn’t do it. We’ll also look at some suggestions to help you get out of the multitasking habit.

Multitasking is a myth because the human brain cannot perform two tasks simultaneously that require focus and concentration. Low level routine activities like breathing aren’t considered multitasking because they do not require concentration.

When you juggle multiple activities that require focus and concentration, multitasking does not work. The brain isn’t wired to take in, process or pay attention to two separate streams of information simultaneously and fully encode them in the short term memory.  Information that doesn’t make it into the short term memory can’t be transferred to the long term memory for recall later. If you can’t recall it, you can’t use it. If you are trying to learn something from whatever you are doing, the multitasking actually works against you.  It makes you less efficient, not more.

Research also shows that when someone tries to multitask, the brain becomes overwhelmed and brain activity actually begins to decrease so each task is completed less efficiently than when they are conducted separately. That’s why texting and driving is so dangerous.

When we switch tasks, our minds must reorient to cope with the new information. If we do this rapidly, like when we are multitasking, we simply cannot devote our full concentration and focus to every switch. So the quality of our work suffers.  The more complex or technical the tasks we’re switching between, the bigger drop in the quality is likely to be. For example, it would be almost impossible to prepare a high quality presentation while having an emotionally charged conversation with a co-worker.

Furthermore, multitasking negatively affects your concentration. Shifting focus so fast and often is the antithesis of concentration so if you really need to concentrate on one thing you should do just that.

Finally, multitasking usually lowers the quality of our work because we are trying to do two things at once which results in doing everything less well than if we focused on each task separately.

If you are really interested in breaking the habit of multitasking, you can try these suggestions:

  1. Make a list of no more than 5 tasks that you must accomplish in a given day.  Longer lists may make you feel overwhelmed.
  2. Pick one of those tasks and completely focus on it until it is completed. Once it is finished, go back and pick one more task, etc.
  3. Shut down your email, silence your phones and close down all social media so that you can completely focus on that activity
  4. Plan your day in blocks.  Set aside specific times for completing those important tasks.
  5. Avoid any and all interruptions.  Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50% longer to complete the original task, and makes up to 50% more errors.

For more information about the negative effects of multitasking and how to get better at managing your time, read Dave Crenshaw’s, The Myth of Multitasking. 




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