Is Multitasking really the best approach to productivity?

The phrase “multitasking” originates from computer science language, and was used to describe how computers would be able to perform many tasks at once. So why has “multitasking” become such an important part of human work culture?

Multitasking has become a buzzword of late thanks to the millennial generation’s ability to adapt to technology, specifically multiscreen experiences. Many can have 50 browser tabs open and bounce between several tasks while checking their messages on their smartphone.

However, the youth haven’t managed the feat of multitasking, they simply are able to do lots of little tasks bit by bit, with the flow usually interrupted by a new task (usually found in an IM or email). The fact is that very few of us are unable to multitask effectively

Professor Earl Miller, a psychology professor from MIT, has even claimed that a day spent multitasking can knock a whole 10 points off our IQ compared to a day monotasking, based on experiments where subjects had to solve several unconnected maths problems at once. More people made mistakes compared to those who monotasked, who also completed the maths problems faster.

Multitasking also releases stress hormones in our brain. An ‘interrupted’ workload can induce stress, feelings of pressure, hopelessness, and even rage in multitasking workers.

You also do a bad job. A 2013 study at the University of Utah looked at those who drive and talk on the phone at the same time – everyone who described themselves as regular (and very good) multitaskers reached their destination at a later time than those who were not talking on their phones. If you are doing two tasks at once, one of those tasks (or even both of them) will suffer.

Life may be too short for monotasking, but it’s also too short to do everything badly! There is also evidence that multitasking can damage people’s memories and creativity – all in all, multitasking can be very bad for your brain!

If your job requires juggling several tasks at once, there is a solution: Clifford Nass at Stanford University found in a 2009 study that the brain copes very well with working in 20 minute chunks, switching form one task to another slowly, giving the grey matter a chance to breathe and focus.

For those of you addicted to multitasking, there are ways to make it easier and safer:

  • Multitask in the morning
  • Juggle two or three easy tasks.
  • Give your brains regular breaks to avoid stress. Monotask or even meditate or do a task that requires focus, such as reading.