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Productivity

The Myth of Multitasking

Why multitasking doesn’t work and three ways to increase productivity.

Key points

  • Attempts to multitask can make us less efficient.
  • Multitasking can make us feel more fatigued.
  • There are some simple ways to help yourself be more productive.

There is a sense of pride often felt when multitasking, as if we have defied human nature by completing more than one high-level brain task at a time, rendering us both superhuman and incredibly efficient. There are various actions we can engage in simultaneously that are not considered multitasking—walking and talking, for example. Multitasking is defined as the act of completing more than one task at the same time—such as studying for an exam while cooking dinner, or sending emails while watching the news. The hard neurological truth, however, is that we are not multitasking. Rather, we are toggling back and forth between two tasks. In many cases, we would be more efficient if we, instead, single-tasked while also creating a conscious start and stop to each task.

The reason for this all starts with the cerebral cortex, the part of our brain responsible for executive processing—including thinking, planning, self-monitoring, self-control, accessing working memory, time management, and organization. As dynamic as the cerebral cortex is, those controls are divided into two stages. These two stages include goal shifting and rule activation.

Goal shifting is the process in which we shift our attention from one task to another. Rule activation is the process in which the brain completes a given task and identifies what it needs to do. Essentially, our brains will turn off the rules for the previous task and turn on the rules for the new task depending upon the goal (Rubinstein, Meyer,& Evans, 2001). These stages do not work simultaneously, but rather in a linear reaction—focus to activation and repeat.

This process occurs within a tenth of a second and without our awareness. Although it may seem like a negligible amount, the time adds up. Much like flicking a light on and off at a rapid pace, we are left feeling literally burned out.

So, what can we do to spare ourselves from mental exhaustion yet still remain efficient with our time? Here are some helpful tips:

1. Resist the temptation to divert attention

Is something pulling your attention elsewhere? Write it down and give yourself a later time to tend to that task. This way, it is out of your mind and you can remain focused on your current task at hand. At first, this can be challenging, but after some practice, this will get easier.

2. Set a time allotment for the given task

Assigning yourself firm parameters for a specific task will help you remain focused to complete the task before being tempted to switch to another. If the other task continues to tempt you, give it a start time so you have something to look forward to.

3. Set reasonable expectations

Before eagerly agreeing to do something, take a moment to consider what is already on your plate. Often it is our desire to “people please” that puts us in a situation in which our own priorities are placed on the back burner in order to attend to the requested task. Although it can be a fantastic feeling to help someone and produce immediate results, you must question if that is your own expectation or that of the person asking. Take a moment to think about a reasonable timeframe to complete the task while not neglecting your other responsibilities.

The chaos that can ensue from multitasking can be alleviated when we spend our time intentionally single-tasking. Rather than feeling drained and unproductive, we will feel more accomplished, efficient, and find ourselves with energy to spare.

References

Rubinstein, J. S., Meyer, D. E., & Evans, J. E. (2001). Executive control of cognitive processes in task switching. Journal of experimental psychology: human perception and performance, 27(4), 763.

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