So you think of yourself as the multitasking master. Type an email while talking on the phone? No problem. Put together two different sets of presentations at the same time? Piece of cake. But as you sort through the mail while you read this article, we’ve got some news that will make you stop in your tracks: There’s no such thing as multitasking, and researchers have conducted studies to prove it.
Debunking the myth
“Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not,” says Earl Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT in the article Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again by Jon Hamilton. In fact, a study published in NeuroImage found managing two mental tasks at once has been proven to reduce the brainpower available for either task, as reported in The Difficulties of Multi-tasking by Colin Allen. The truth is, it’s virtually impossible to truly focus on more than one thing at a time. Instead, our brain will shift its focus from one thing to the next very quickly. Allen reports that according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, when the mind shifts back and forth, the mind actually slows down.
The trouble with juggling too many tasks
There’s a term for this rapid shifting between one task to another, and it’s called switchtasking, according to management expert Dave Crenshaw, on his website davecrenshaw.com. And there’s a high cost to switchtasking over time: “You have deeply engrained habits that cause stress and anxiety and dropped responsibilities and a myriad of productivity & focus problems,” states Crenshaw. “It’s little wonder so many people complain of increasingly short attention spans!”
Pump up productivity with simple steps
David E. Meyer, a cognitive scientist and director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan, found multitasking leads to inefficiency. “Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes,” he says in the article, Multitasking Madness Decreases Productivity, by Barbara Bartlein. Meyer also states, “Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.” Instead of trying to take on too much at the same time, Bartlein offers these suggestions:
1. Estimate the time needed to complete your tasks, then actually time yourself. You’ll be able to see areas where you underestimate your time and be able to adjust your work schedule.
2. Keep your mind less cluttered by using external memory. That could mean using anything from a notebook, a desk calendar or even a PDA to remind you of important appointments or items on your “to do” list.
3. Group similar tasks together. For example, set aside a specific time of day to handle phone calls and emails, rather than checking them multiple times throughout the day.
4. Finally, remove any distractions when you’re focusing on a particular task. Let your phone go to voicemail, set the radio down to a lower volume. That way, you’ll be able to concentrate on completing the task at hand.
Of course, there are times when you can layer your tasks. For instance, you can print documents while you’re putting together a spreadsheet, or read a report while you’re labeling envelopes. But your mind is still able to focus on the task in front of you. So think about how you’re accomplishing what you’re doing, and see how cutting back on multitasking can actually increase your productivity.