What is multitasking? Is it a boon or a bane for your workflow?

What is multitasking? Is it a boon or a bane for your workflow?

More often than not, there is a prevailing notion, especially in the workplace, that being perpetually busy, that juggling several things at one time is a good thing. A badge of honor even; some think of it as a way to gauge their worth or value in the organization, others think it a means to measure one’s capabilities. Many bosses “reward” “star” employees with several tasks they need done simultaneously; many executives practice the same — a meeting about one project there, brainstorming another elsewhere, another project review and revision in another place.

In a highly competitive and fast-paced society, multitasking is generally considered a good thing. The perception is that more things are done, meaning better productivity, meaning better returns and output. But is that really the case? What is multitasking, and how does it really affect individuals and the workplaces and organizations they belong to?

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What is multitasking, anyway?

Wikipedia defines multitasking as “an apparent human ability to perform more than one task, or activity, at the same time.” It’s not hard to understand multitasking, the hard part lies in its execution.

Studies, like the one published in Psychology Today, indicate that a meager 2% of people can multitask successfully. The remaining 98%, not so much, and only THINK they can do so. In reality, their brains are just switching focus very fast, instead of actually doing several things simultaneously.

“These brain regions that differentiate supertaskers from the rest of the population are the same regions that are most different between humans and nonhuman primates,” the article says. This means that while true multitasking is an ability that is part of what makes humans the smartest beings on the planet, it’s also limited to a small number of people in the same way there are geniuses and there are the rest of us. The study goes on to state that “you either efficiently recruit this region or you don’t. You’re either a supertasker or you’re not.” There’s a pretty clear distinction and there is no middle ground.

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Why multitasking is more boon than bane

Just imagine driving. Would it be wise to also be texting, or taking a call, or even eating at the same time? It’s a universally accepted rule, which is reflected in the stiff legal penalties for violators, that using a mobile phone while driving is dangerous. Countless accidents in the United States alone, and all over the world, for that matter, can be attributed to distracted driving.

While multitasking, if it can be truly achieved, is indeed a boon, in most cases, attempting it is more like an accident waiting to happen, especially in a driving scenario.

But the same does apply in the workplace. Despite the prevailing mentality that multitasking is a good thing, as early as 2001, science was already debunking the myth of the supposed benefits of multitasking.

A study published in the American Psychological Association states that “multitasking may actually be less efficient–especially for complicated or unfamiliar tasks — because it takes extra time to shift mental gears every time a person switches between the two tasks.” Subsequent studies have supported this, and basically say that it’s actually more efficient to tackle things one at a time. The brain is not really made for switching from one mode to another — when it does, the transition is neither smooth or fast, especially when compared to a brain that sticks to one task and sees it through the end.

Here’s a fun fact, as stated by a study cited by another Psychology Today article: the people who claim to be the best at multitasking are most likely the WORST at it. The study, conducted by three Stanford University researchers and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), showed that “[t]hose who rated themselves as chronic multitaskers made more mistakes, could remember fewer items, and took longer to complete a variety of focusing tasks analogous to multitasking than those self-rated as infrequent multitaskers.”

What is multitasking then, besides a largely overrated “skill” that doesn’t really exist? Take this statement, published by the Association of Psychological Science by researcher Shalena Srna of the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan: “Multitasking is often a matter of perception or can even be thought of as an illusion.” Interestingly, this study shows that having the ILLUSION of multitasking can actually enhance performance, as researchers postulate that it might have something to do with the level of engagement of the participants. Since they’re juggling multiple tasks, there is more effort to keep engagement with each on.

But take that with a grain of salt. Forbes quotes another study, this time from David Meyer, also from the University of Michigan, which says that multitasking basically increases the completion time for tasks by 25%. That basically means that two projects you could have finished in a total of 4 days (meaning 2 days a project) would be done in around 5 days if you switched working from one to the other. Imagine, a whole day, wasted. Meyer says in the story, “[d]isruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.”

Another thing multitasking does is offer more pathways to distractions. Since the mind wanders from the task at hand because the brain needs to recalibrate itself, it also opens up avenues for even non-work-related things to gain entry into a workflow. The Forbes article also includes another study that showed that workers who were interrupted by responding to calls or emails and the like took an average of 15 minutes to get back to what they were originally doing — besides tackling these other mundane tasks, these workers tended to spend extra time surfing the web or doing other activities that had no bearing on their task. Even more studies have shown that attempting to multitask causes the brain significantly more stress than working at one task at a time.

The mentality of the (perceived) multitasker is to simply get things done. But science has shown that this isn’t really achieved in either an efficient or a timely manner. Besides, is this the way you really want things done? What is multitasking then, but simply an effort to achieve completion for the sole sake of completion? That in turn tends to lead to mediocre output and results, and no one wants that.

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Three quick pointers on how to really get things done

Science seems to be overwhelmingly in favor of sticking to doing one thing at a time. Here are a few pointers to help keep focus at the task at hand.

1. Take a break

It may seem counterintuitive at first, but hear us out first. Break means a rest. You don’t switch to another activity, you simply slow down. Put a schedule in. Don’t surf the web or check your Facebook feed. Just relax or even meditate for a bit. Or take a bite to eat. And then return to what you were originally doing. The brain needs this so it can take a step back and isn’t in turn overloaded and overworked. It also allows you to take a step back and assess what you’ve been doing from a larger and wider perspective.

2. Remind yourself to focus

Be it an alarm or a small note, don’t forget to keep focus. You can also accomplish this by creating an outline of the task you want to finish, and mark your accomplishments and milestones as you go along. This will not only help you focus, but also keep tabs on your progress (and help your supervisor / manager as well thus possibly earning you some brownie points) and help you manage your time better. It’s essential that you keep distractions at bay and keep your mind engaged in the matter at hand. The more you’re engaged, the more you concentrate, and the likelihood that you finish faster (and better) is higher, and you can move on to the next task, or take that well-deserved break.

3. Utilize the right tools for time management

True time management and task management can only be achieved if you have the right tools at your disposal. Runrun.it’s it’s so much more than just a work management tool. It’s also a way to keep track of how time is being spent, and how much time is being spent on tasks A to Z. Especially for managers and supervisors, this tool is a great asset in the sense that it enables them to see if resources are being utilized efficiently. They then can know when to step in and what steps to take in order to make operations more well-organized and cost-effective. Add the Dashboard feature, another of Runrun.it’s plethora of useful workplace and organization tools, you can generate reports and data regarding many integral facets of operations, keeping you constantly in the loop and again, making for a much more efficient workflow.

To see how much Runrun.it’s tools can make a positive effect on your company, check out the free trial here.

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