How many times have we declared with pride at a job interview, ‘I’m a multitasker’?
Since it first appeared in the English language in the 1960s, multitasking has generally been considered as a desirable quality to possess, both in the workplace and beyond. It makes one look more efficient, productive and calm under pressure.
But is multitasking the best way to take on the workday? Surprisingly, most studies have shown that the answer is a resounding ‘no’.
From a biological point of view, the brain can find it difficult to fully focus on multiple jobs at the same time. This can lead to more time taken to complete a task and increase the risk of errors. Alternating from one task to the other, or ‘cognitive switching’ uses up more oxygenated glucose i.e. energy, in the brain as well, leading to tiredness.
Other studies have shown that an average of 23 minutes is needed to get back to focusing a 100% on a task after switching to something else on the to-do list. This is particularly relevant to tasks that involve a heavy amount of thinking.
Multitasking can also increase stress levels, as the brain is constantly on ‘high alert’ mode.
On the other hand, researchers are in favour of single tasking when high quality work is needed to be produced in a limited amount of time.
Thus, during a busy work day, it’s best to prioritize tasks and projects, and focus on just one until it’s completed, before moving on to the next one. This might be hard to do at first, in a world where we’re constantly connected to distractions that are both physical and digital. But like anything in life, a little bit of practice goes a long way. So, does this mean that multitasking should be avoided at all costs because it slows us down? Well, not really, as long as we’re engaging different parts of the brain, like driving a car while listening to music or exercising while watching TV or sipping tea while catching up on our email!