Have you ever had a conversation with a work colleague while scrolling through your email? Do you eat dinner in front of the television with one eye on your smartphone? Not only does each notification bring the possibility of something you wouldn’t want to miss, but feeling and looking busy can give you a sense of power and value.
However, the truth is that multitasking makes us achieve less, not more. Here are five reasons why you should resist the temptation to tackle everything at once:
1. Your brain can’t multitask like a computer can
Try this: time yourself reciting the alphabet, followed by the numbers 1 to 26. Now time yourself saying aloud “A 1 B 2 C 3 ..” through to “Z 26” The same number of things to say, but this time it will take longer - and you may even lose your place. A computer can “time-slice” between two or more simple tasks with very little penalty - your conscious thoughts can’t.
2. It takes time to fully engage focus
Even when you are not switching rapidly between tasks, every interruption hits your productivity more than you might think. A 2007 study of Microsoft employees found that when an email message interrupted their workflow, it took them on average 15 minutes to “get back in the zone” - whether they responded to the message or not.
3. Multitasking ruins your decisions
In one 1999 experiment two groups were asked to weigh up the pros and cons of various locations for a proposed building. One group was interrupted during their considerations with a request to do something else. Even after allowing for the time of the interruption, the interrupted group took longer to decide and made a poorer choice than the group left at peace.
4. Multitasking makes you stressed (and not in a good way)
Have you ever heard yourself say “I can’t hear myself think!”? A 2006 study found that while it is normal for a person to feel anxious when they are tackling a new task, when interrupted while doing so they reported twice the level of anxiety - and their performance decreased as a result.
5. Multitasking can be dangerous
When we try to focus on many activities at once, we lose the ability to spot movements happening in our peripheral vision, because our attention is being bombarded with constant change. This can ultimately be the difference between life and death - think about that next time you are tempted to compose a text while driving.
Of course, you may already instinctively know that concentrating on one thing at a time is actually the best way to get things done; but it isn’t always easy if you don’t have a secret mountain retreat. In my next blog I’ll explore some simple techniques to help you build a more single-tasking routine.