Does Multitasking Work for You?

 

If you look at most job descriptions today, the same expectation applies: must be able to multitask. What exactly does that mean?

Do they want you to answer the phone while filing a report and write a grant at the same time?

Multitasking is officially recognized as the simultaneous execution of multiple tasks. I thought I was such an effective multitasker for years, scrambling around my desk and rushing around the office with projects everywhere. An email half finished with two computer browsers open, I juggled my work load. I often stopped to figure out what I had missed in my rush to get it all done.

I began to notice my attempt to multitask had become more like multi-confusion. Keeping a list or two or twelve helped me get through my projects.  A little research about this whole multitasking thing reveals that engaging in multiple nonautomatic tasks is something we can’t actually do. What we are really doing is alternating between tasks for short bouts of time.

I may not want to admit it any more than you, but all of us humans have cognitive processing limits that make certain tasks impossible to do in combination. Our brains have to direct attention and draw from specific neurological resources.

So, multitasking is really just darting around, or shifting between tasks. Studies show that workers shift between tasks every 3 minutes. That sounds about right. What we have tried to master as a workforce is the ability to start many things and move back and forth for the duration of the day.

How is that working for us? The answer may surprise you. Research by Shalena, Schrift, & Zauberman (2018) suggests our performance does improve to some extent when we set out to multitask. That improvement is surprisingly not related to the aspect of multitasking. We tend to mentally prepare for a more demanding load on attention, mustering up our best capacity for stretching our efforts. The very perception that we are multitasking improves our performance, which in turn reinforces our pattern and belief that this approach is effective.

To some extent multi-tasking is necessary and effective. You can answer the phone while motioning to a visitor to come in and sit down. You can walk on a treadmill, catch glimpses of the television, and read a magazine. Most of us have trained ourselves to do things that need to be done simultaneously. But our quality and speed of completion suffers when we try to cram important or super draining efforts into this scattered pattern. If you are like me, I have become aware of that scattered feeling like my day is slipping away from me while I have 10 things partially finished.

 

Too much forced task divisions over time rewire our brain and keep us locked in a cycle of always spinning our wheels. We can easily get discouraged that nothing is getting completed or done the way we wanted.

So what do we do about this?

First, we become aware of how we are falling into this pattern and become mindful of what we are trying to do at one time. You may notice how often your attention is interrupted by your cell notifications or a new thought that leads you down a different path.

Once you gain insight of your tendencies, it’s time to gently remind yourself when you are straying off track and need to ignore a distraction to complete what’s in front of you. Try writing down the thought of what you want to do so you can stay engaged with a task until a satisfying conclusion.

An initial goal for me has been to focus on one task, sweeping away unnecessary distractions until I’m finished. The feeling of successful completion can then take the place of what I call scattered brain effects. Staying on task is best for our brain and sense of accomplishment.

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