Busting myths about the ‘power’ of multitasking
Today's work culture promotes multitasking as a religion, even though research has proved that mono-tasking is more beneficial. This must change
How long can you sit without checking your social media status or your email?
Pause for a moment and notice everything in front of you this very second.
I, for one, have multiple browsers open with many tabs loaded, and I believe you are no different than me. Your inbox is gradually filling up in silence. WhatsApp and other messaging platforms keep popping up messages from different clients, staff, and family members. And if you're reading this on your laptop, let's not forget your smartphone, which constantly alerts you to one thing or the other.
In simple words, in today's world, all of us multitask.
Fact check: Multitasking is actually a “fairytale” we all have been made to believe in and glorify. The 21st-century work culture promotes multitasking as a religion, even though research has proved that mono-tasking is more beneficial. A lie was sold to us once and we have made it the truth of our lives.
Several studies from across the world have proved that doing multiple tasks at a given time is an illusion. It is a myth that we are getting more done when we divide our focus into multiple tasks at a time. The hard truth is that, when we do this, we are, in fact, less productive and more stressed. Our performance when we multitask is worse than when we mono-task (do a single task at a time).
This is because our brains are not wired to do two things at once. And so, when we multitask, we shift our focus back and forth between different tasks, often very quickly. This shifting of our focus can even happen in less than 10 seconds, taking a massive toll on our physical and psychological health.
Studies have found that we lose 20% of our productivity each time we switch between tools or tasks. On average, people at work (study subjects) switched between tasks every three minutes. We waste more time than we save by multitasking. Worse still, there is growing evidence that it kills our creativity and concentration.
Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT, says "Switching from task to task, you think you are really paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you're actually not."
In a 2010 study, Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that people spend almost 47% of their waking hours on auto-pilot, thinking about something other than what they are presently doing. The authors write, “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
Impact on brain function
When we move between tasks, our brain’s cognitive functions go through a shift-and-reactivation process. This is not a simple process for the brain. It is time-consuming and exhausting, especially when the brain is made to shift among several tasks that use the same part of the brain. Therefore, our information retention rate is much lower, with our brains taking four times longer to recognise new things while multitasking.
Battling the illusion of creativity
If multitasking is so bad, why do we spend most of our time doing it? And what can we do to move away from this habit?
When we multitask, we lose the power of undivided focus, but still, we feel emotionally satisfied, creating an illusion of productivity. This illusion makes us want to keep multitasking, and that's why, despite the concerns, we still love sending our day multitasking. This doesn’t affect us much when watching a web series and doing something irrelevant. However, when we are working on something important, this slows us down and adds stress to our day. Multitasking affects our personal lives, too, but research shows clearer effects of it in the workplace.
Busting the myth
The fundamental principle to accept is that our brain can do one thing at a time and abandon the little device in our hand when we are trying to focus and the moment, our main conspirator in multitasking. When we mono-task, we are less stressed and easily find the state of flow. We become more creative. And so, even though mono-tasking may appear to be limiting, it, in fact, helps boost creativity.
It’s time to say goodbye to tab-filled browsers, never-ending notifications, and open inboxes, and begin a stress-free creative life.
Bhupinder Sandhu is a London-based mindfulness coach who believes in the human ability to build a blissful world together
The views expressed are personal