Multitasking: A New Word for Counterproductive?

“Must be able to multitask.” How many times have you seen that in a job description? Furthermore, how many times have you highlighted your “extraordinary multitasking skills” in an interview or cover letter? In our line of work, it’s a must. But it seems that despite our best efforts to boost productivity by accomplishing more work in less time, we’re actually all just fooling ourselves.

It’s All An Illusion…

Photo by Alejandro Escamilla on Unsplash

According to the American Psychological Association, recent neuroscience studies have found that our brains are pretty strictly wired for good ol’ fashioned mono-tasking. And while we may think we are performing multiple jobs at once, we’re actually just rapidly switching between tasks or completing them in quick succession–and poorly at that. Plus, all this switching is forcing our brains to constantly refocus, costing time and brain cells. In fact, new research from the University of Sussex in the UK claims to have found a link between media multitasking (texting while watching TV, for example) and actual changes in brain structure. The science behind it requires more long-term study, but the implications are clear: Multitasking is hard on the brain.

But That’s Not All…

Dr. Daniel J Levitin, an award-winning scientist, musician, author, and record producer (Phew, talk about multitasking!) explains in an article he wrote for The Guardian, that in today’s world of modern tech we are constantly over-inundated with information, exhausting our already-busy brains. All this stimuli makes us feel as if we are constantly doing two things at once. Group chatting through homework. Catching up on emails during conference calls. Curating a playlist while jogging with the pup. But we’re not really accomplishing more, he explains. We’re less like “expert jugglers” and more like “amateur plate spinners,” frantically trying to keep everything from crashing down.

What’s more, he says, is that all this hectic task switching affects brain chemistry. “Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. … It is the ultimate empty-calorie brain candy. Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks.”

Just Breathe…

Are you sweating yet? Because I sure am. I can’t help but stew over all the time I’ve wasted, thinking I was actually saving time. So how can we combat the woes of multitasking and still feel a sense of efficiency and accomplishment at the end of the day?


Focus on the task at hand.

Settle down, eliminate those distractions, and focus on one, primary task. Did you know that if the phone starts ringing, you don’t actually have to answer it? Crazy, I know. But there’s this thing called voicemail, and it’s there to help you prioritize–let it. Similarly, don’t be afraid to close your office door, or politely tell your colleagues you need some “Do Not Disturb” time if you’re ever going to finish this project. We’re all guilty of subscribing to the always-be-available culture. But the truth is, you don’t have to be. You’re entitled to some personal space and time to think.

And if you happen to work in an environment where “slowing down” is laughable, then try to find ways to tune out the extraneous information. Determine what needs your attention most, and ask for help when you need it. And, most importantly, communicate with your coworkers and customers. A simple “Thank you so much for your patience… I wanted to make sure I did this correctly” can go a very long way, especially if someone sees you’re busy.

Change the rules.

If you’re the boss, try shaking things up. Ask employees to silence phones, close laptops, or share at least one idea or suggestion by the end of any meetings. Require computers to have social media sites blocked during work hours (unless otherwise necessary as part of someone’s job description). And set your colleagues up for success by providing an organized work environment and establishing realistic goals.

If you don’t have the authority to change how things are done around the workplace, then focus on yourself. Try eliminating the things that distract you most, and give others the full attention you wish they’d show you. Oftentimes, simply modeling the behavior we’d like to see can have an observable effect on those around us.

Practice a little mindfulness.Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Perhaps the scariest consequence of our growing tendency toward media multitasking is the way it alienates us from our surrounding environment. How much do we miss while looking down at our phones? Even without the tech aspect, trying to perform too many tasks at once causes unnecessary stress, exhaustion, and feelings of being unsupported. (“But if I don’t do it, it won’t get done!”)

It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. And often we’re only jolted back into place when something drastic happens–you witness a natural wonder, a dear friend passes away, you narrowly avoid a car accident. Don’t wait for a shock to draw you back to reality. Take a moment every day to just close your eyes and breathe. Or here’s an idea, have a real conversation with someone at lunch instead of just scrolling through Facebook.

In short, slow down. The work will always be there. But giving each task its individual attention will ensure that it’s done right the first time around, freeing you up to enjoy the things that make you most happy. Stay cool, stay focused, and be amazed at the results.

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