Can we really multitask?
There has been much discussion, supported by research, addressing the fact that successful multi-tasking is just not possible. And yet again this week I see an article listing multi-tasking as a core skillset for every HR professional. It just doesn’t make sense.
What we know about multitasking
Let’s review what we know.
Our brains have limited capacity to focus for long periods of time. Our pre-frontal cortex uses up lots of energy and needs an ideal set of circumstances to be able to think clearly and intensely for any length of time. Assuming we have created this ideal situation and are making the best use of our brains, the last thing we should be doing is running that battery down even quicker than necessary. Even when we attempt to multi-task we exhaust our brain and we get worse at it each time we do it.
What is multitasking?
Multi-tasking is not doing two or more things at the same time well.
It is very quickly – so quickly we might not even be aware – switching between multiple tasks. Task switching is splitting our concentration between tasks and it will very quickly exhaust our brains. Performance will drop, concentration will lessen, our ability to make decisions will be impaired and our IQ will drop.
In fact, during a 2015 study the University of London found that multi-tasking during cognitive tasks can impair your intellectual capacity as much as a night without sleep.
The downside of multitaking
A downside of multitasking is that while our concentration is split we won’t be able to properly learn from and embed memories about the task we are doing. Being able to focus our attention on one single task at time will enable us to not only perform that task to a higher standard, but to focus on building a stronger neural network to support the task in future.
Of course, there are some exceptions.
If you are undertaking a simple, well-learned task that doesn’t require much cognitive effort you may also be able to complete another similar task to a suitable standard.
Unfortunately, in our complex and busy work environments, this is rarely the case. Try replying to an email while listening in on a teleconference. You’ll either block out what’s being said to focus on the email and miss something important, or try to listen while typing and end up with a bunch of typos in the email.
Tips for avoiding multitasking
So, what can we do about it? Well, first of all I’d say stop trying to do many things at once and work with your brain, rather than against it. Some other tips to try:
- Schedule your day so you have blocks of time assigned focus solely on the completion of a task.
- Undertake cognitively difficult tasks early in the day when your brain naturally has more energy.
- Turn of email alerts, put phones on silent and basically remove as many distractions as you can to help you focus.
- Know how to push back and manage the expectations of others who might ask you to multi-task.
- Try to control where your attention goes. Focus on the task at hand and not on what else needs to be done later.
- Take regular short breaks to allow your brain to recover.
Through implementing these easy tips you may avoid the brain drain that comes from multi-tasking and produce better quality outcomes.