Multitasking is often viewed as a sign of superior intellect and a prerequisite for success and a top work performance. Depending on the workload, it might even be viewed as a non-negotiable requirement on the road to success. There is a very popular anecdote that says Napoleon was allegedly capable of simultaneously dictating five letters to his secretaries. However, modern experts are starting to claim that multitasking is not really all it’s cracked up to be. Let’s see the ideas to improve productivity how it truly affects our performance , and what we can do to reach optimal results.
The Secrets of the Brain
We don’t know specifically about Napoleon’s brain, but everyone else’s works more or less in the same way. According to professor Compernolle, a renowned Belgian neuropsychiatrist with expertise in workplace productivity, over the millions of years it took us to evolve, the brain has developed three distinct functions: abstract thinking (or reflection), reflexes (or instincts), and archiving (data organization and storage). For success in modern life, we need to learn how to curb our fast but primitive reflex brain, which is a remnant of our animalistic past. Instead, we should rely on the thinking and archiving portions of our brain. However, each of these has its own drawbacks. The archiving brain needs downtime, when most other processes cease and brain power can be allocated almost entirely to organizing and committing information to long-term memory. The thinking brain, on the other hand, is slow. It takes time to focus, and even then, only prolonged periods during which we are able to maintain that focus bring fruitful results.
What is Multitasking?
It is widely accepted that there are two different kinds of multitasking: simultaneous or parallel, and serial multitasking. The first kind is when we actually try to do two different things at the same time – for instance, speaking to a colleague while following a presentation at work. The other kind, serial multitasking, is when we constantly switch between small portions of different tasks, like writing an email, working on a project, checking our phone, etc. Both kinds are equally detrimental to our productivity as our brain is forced to constantly switch between tasks, and often even fill in the blanks when we fail to catch a bit of information. Needless to say, a lot of the times, the brain makes mistakes while filling these gaps. The constant switching takes up the entire capacity of our thought processes, so sometimes vital information gets lost before it can be stored properly.
How Big of a Problem Is It?
Research shows that most professionals have virtually dozens of ongoing tasks at any given moment. Even worse, on average they are able to focus on a single task only around 10 minutes before they get interrupted. It takes almost half an hour to reach the same level of concentration after an interruption. When we are distracted, our reflex brain often takes over, and we make poor decision based on shortcuts: biases and habits. When we put ourselves in the position where we try to do many things quickly, we are allowing our primitive, reflex brain to take over. Nowadays, this problem is exacerbated because our need to always be connected literally forces us to multi-task all the time. This in turn makes our productivity plummet, while our stress levels skyrocket. Pair this with the open-floor plan of many offices, and we have a recipe for disaster. An employee gets interrupted every few minutes, whether by an incoming email, or a colleague coming over to chat. Productivity? Missing in action. Quality of work done? Abysmal. So, how can we get back on track?
Method 1: Disconnect
The instructions to getting back on track are quite simple, but it takes a lot of effort to follow them. We need to eliminate distractions and resist the temptation to give in to quick reactions based on reflexes or learned habits. First and foremost, we must try to disconnect as much as possible. Unfortunately, as a species, we have a natural predilection for addiction; information and communications technologies are modeled to exploit this predisposition. Have the strength to unplug. Maybe it’s not realistic to be disconnected most of the time, but try to give your mind as many of these uninterrupted intervals as you can. Don’t be afraid to slow down, and even feel bored. That is when your thinking brain takes over and magic happens.
Method 2: Minimize Stress by Avoiding Multitasking
In small doses, stress can be a positive, stimulating feeling. However, when you are constantly trying to juggle several tasks at once, stress levels reach unpleasant heights. Multitasking leads not only to poor quality and quantity of work done; it can also result in injuries. In the long run, continual stress can affect our physical and mental health. The solution to this problem is good organization and a consistent effort to eliminate distractions. Give your brain the time to concentrate and produce quality work. Work on tasks one by one. You can group similar tasks together, but it’s crucial you work on each consecutively instead of constantly switching. Take a short break after each group so that your archiving brain has the time to kick in and save relevant information.
Work is a huge part of our lives. Perhaps you want to climb higher on the corporate ladder. Or maybe you just feel like you are not doing your best. Maybe your work is being criticized. Maybe you feel overwhelmed, and stress is starting to take its toll on your health. Whatever your personal story, there is always room for improvement. Once we learn how to eliminate the toxic influence of multitasking, our productivity and creativity will flourish, while stress will evaporate.