We often resort to multi-tasking thinking we can get more done that way. We think we can do many things at the same time to save time and energy. This is, unfortunately, a myth. The brain is not built for multi-tasking, it is at its best when ‘in the flow’, focused fully and completely on one activity at a time. We are at the mercy of multi-tasking when in start-up mode; sometimes when doing routine, uninspirational activities or when exceptionally busy and a bit frenetic, such as ‘Back to school’ with books, bags, lunch-boxes, uniforms, track suit days, money for this and that, school runs and pick-ups, homework, activities, school notes and texts etc.….while working, running the home, finding time for exercise and a life! Throw in a few ‘curve balls’ such as an ill parent, a problem at work, a sick friend, and the temptation to multi-task skyrockets.
There is a huge myth around multi-tasking: that it is a skill worth developing because people who can multi-task are more efficient and effective at what they do. Many times this skill has been attributed to women and jokes poked at men because they cannot master the skill of multi-tasking naturally like women (often in the home let it be said, around routine domestic tasks, so add that into the mix!). People then confuse multi-tasking with ‘chunking’; where you chunk up your time in sufficient lots and switch between cognitively-challenged tasks and more routine tasks in order to maximise the brain power, energy and concentration required for important work.
Take a look at the following scenarios and see if they are familiar to you:
- You are on the phone while at the same time getting through your e-mails (reading and replying).
- You are compiling a complex report, using sources from different places/sites on your computer with a number of same-time instant messages open on your desk top which keep flashing. Often there will also be a document or two open which have nothing to do with the report you are currently working on.
- You are driving the car while speaking on the hands-free mobile-phone to a client about an important business event.
- Your colleague is telling you something very confidential while you are scanning documents to print for an important meeting due in 15 minutes.
- You are planning out your ‘to-do’ list for the week during the Monday morning operations meeting.
- You are checking your voice-mails while reading through the new procedure which is over-due for review.
- You are repairing a piece of dangerous equipment while at the same time answering a question from a newly hired colleague.
- You are reading the presentation slides at the new product introduction meeting while listening to the speaker who is explaining complex data and elaborating on statistics.
- You are trying to write that article you have on your ‘to-do’ list for a few months now and you keep getting interrupted by colleagues calling to your desk, the phone ringing, emails pinging in. Each time you are interrupted you feel compelled to deal with the many requests while writing the article at the same time.
- You are cooking from an untried Rachel Allen recipe which for you is complex and needs careful checking with the cookbook step-by-step while your children are telling you their news from the day and calling for help with homework.
Given the above familiar scenarios, if you think about them honestly, you will come to the conclusion that when we multi-task we are attempting to do two or more tasks at the same time and in doing so we use a low level of attention and focus for each one. This is because our brains cannot focus on two activities fully at the same time, for example, I cannot write this blog post and answer questions at the same time. If I try to do that, I will write a very poor post and I will not fully understand the questions; yet how often I have tried to send texts from my phone while one of my children is talking to me at the same time! Neither works: I only fade in and out of the conversation and it takes me twice as long to complete a task which often contains errors (normally spelling errors I may add).
No doubt multitasking lowers the quality of work, increases the chance for error which then requires re-work and can contribute to a reputation for carelessness, poor quality, lack of interest and inattentiveness to others. Multi-tasking at its worst is unsafe (see examples 3, 7 and 10 above) and is usually unproductive, ineffective and inefficient. Apparently a number of studies have found that multitasking results in us wasting around 20-40 % of our time depending on the nature of what we are trying to get done i.e., the percentage goes up the higher the complexity of the task. So, I can fold the washing (laundry) while listening to the radio (but it might be better folded, into neat piles and in a faster time if I weren’t listening to the radio!) but I cannot write my blog post while listening to the radio, I just cannot do both at the same time, not well anyway.
For me, the main motivation to stop multi-tasking is because it can lead to a feeling of being overwhelmed by the multiple activities we are attempting to address at the same time. And the end result can be a deep sense of dissatisfaction and frustration. On the other hand, when we stop multi-tasking and focus instead on one activity at a time, giving full attention and focus, the sense of achievement is high and satisfaction soars. We allow ourselves to ‘get in the flow’ and from that place we are at our best. In my next blog post, I will give you some very practical and useful methods to help you stop multi-tasking and increase focus to get more benefit from your valuable time and energy.
Back to school, bring it on now!
Anne Marie Crowley, based in Cork, is a free-lance Coach and Trainer in the field of behavioural change for individuals and business.
Anne Marie Crowley is the founder of Crowley Personal and Business Change.