Tasks at hand: Should we 'multi' or 'mono'?

The ability to juggle many hats is not what it’s all trumped up to be. It takes a toll in more ways than just serving up burnt food. And yet, many of us don’t have the rigour to do one thing at a time. We hear both sides of the story

By Anjaly Thomas

Published: Sat 2 Apr 2022, 9:44 PM

Last updated: Sat 2 Apr 2022, 10:35 PM

There was a time when I could look multiple tasks in the eye, challenge them to a match — and win. But not as skillfully as the ‘Queen of Multitasking’ I shared office space with. Ms QoM, the boss said from time to time, was an asset to the company and an example of a hard-working employee.

I remember trying to warn everyone and Ms QoM in particular against overdosing on multitasking but she looked me in the eye and smirked. Then one day, she walked past the boss mumbling manically — with her phone ringing in her pocket — and straight into the wall.

From that day, she lost her self-esteem and turned borderline depressive; and that opened our eyes to the fact that not only was multitasking a modern-day myth, but the effects of it were also irreversible.

However, I did manage to complete a book whilst at work — which I thought was most challenging, till I read this quote: “Eating toast in the shower is the ultimate multitask”.

This changed the way I perceive multi-tasking. Toast, after all, deserved respect.

Few things, I told myself severely, are simply not meant to be.

A definite cause for anxiety

An assistant professor at School of Social Sciences, Heriot-Watt University Dubai, Dr Kirin Hilliar explains how multitasking can induce stress. “Knowingly or unknowingly, we tend to multitask. For example, while writing an email, we may also be on a call; or while in a virtual meeting, we might be checking our inbox for an important email to come through; or we may be writing a report whilst also sending messages to a team member about a project. While this may seem productive, it can cause mistakes and stress, as it is difficult for us to process multiple activities at any one time,” she explains, while suggesting a conscious switch to monotasking. “I tend to avoid multitasking, as I believe focusing on one activity/task at a time gives me the desired results, and also saves time.”

According to her, the most likely catchments who are susceptible to multitasking are assistants reporting to management, receptionists, public relations professionals and social media experts, teachers and university professors, sales professionals, and women cooking dinner and supervising their kids’ homework. “This can only have adverse effects on the kids — and the dinner, of course!”

Hilliar emphasises on the importance of mono-tasking as it helps minimise errors. “Admittedly, it can be daunting not to jump between multiple tasks at a time to get them done — as we are constantly working against time. However, it is imperative to know that performing one task and completing it before moving on to the next one can minimise distraction, increase productivity and cause less stress.”

A matter of perception

According to Dr Pappachan Joseph of Royal Preston Hospital, UK, all of us are forced to multitask to a large extent to ensure that we complete every commitment on time. “Like every other professional, I also multitask — balancing work with personal and social activities. This, without doubt, has become a part of modern life.”

To him, multitasking is a way of reducing workload and improving output as many of his job-related activities involve multiple individuals. “I can’t do them at a single stretch without a harmonious effort from everyone in the team. I end up working on multiple projects at a time,” he says. “Even when I am working alone, I listen to music to relax or watch the news. This, in fact, has improved my productivity and efficiency.”

He admits that he rarely makes mistakes while multitasking, and that it actually helps in getting things done faster. He gives an example of his life during the times of Covid. “During the first and second waves of the pandemic, I was doing regular clinical work with more research thrown in along with supporting families and friends simultaneously. My research output during the period had been higher than usual with 15 academic publications during the period.”

Joseph doesn’t believe multitasking is dangerous if undertaken by the right individual who can perform well. But it can be dangerous if someone cannot ‘manage’ it.

A dangerous trait to have

Dubai-based clinical therapist and life coach Anne Jackson explains how, in the current climate of the world, with endless possibilities of distractions, multitasking has become a national pastime.

“Completing various tasks simultaneously may seem like a highly efficient way of working… however, multitasking wastes time and reduces the quality of work,” she explains. “Multitasking can, in fact, hamper your productivity by reducing your [power of] comprehension, attention and overall performance.”

Multitasking, she maintains, can be a dangerous trait to have. For example, texting while driving. Or switching from one project to another rapidly. “This can impair our ability to function at our finest as we aren’t able to apply our full capabilities into one singular task. When this happens, we are only offering half to each.”

Elaborating further, she says, people who regularly multitask are more apt to test high for traits like risk taking, sensation seeking and impulsivity. “They are generally those who become easily distracted and struggle to inhibit the impulse to do another activity. Often people multitask as they can’t focus on the task most important to them and are the worst at accomplishing and juggling tasks than those who mono-task.”

Studies have shown that when we set out to complete a task, several networks in the brain interact to guide our behaviour: like setting a goal, identifying the information we need to achieve it, and disregarding irrelevant distractions. “Multitasking can deter us from efficiently identifying the information we need to conclude our task because it can lead us down the route of irrelevant distractions.”

Jackson says, as humans, we are more adapted to being mono taskers, so if we commit to one task at a time, we should see significant improvement in our overall performance and benefit from a calmer state of mind. “Monotasking might be the solution.”

A fine balance of skills

Nairobi-based journalist Nduta Waweru thinks that multitasking is a possibility for those who can compartmentalise their minds — which allows them to work on different tasks at the same time.

She believes in prioritising work, starting with the most pressing, which ensures the successful completion of all tasks without feeling of having left anything undone. “That way, I am able to stay calm and not worry about the five things I need to get done in half hour. No pressure is good for the body and mind, and I don’t have to beat myself up for things gone wrong.”

She says in situations where multitasking is the only option, she batches similar tasks together, which allows to focus on the same tasks without needing to make a mental turnaround to a whole new and different task.

“I believe it does affect productivity because you have different tasks calling for your attention at the same time. In some cases, you might end up giving little attention to something that requires more, and it ends up affecting your output. I did suffer setbacks in the past. I would end up with three incomplete projects because of the constant switch from one task to the other and back. This took a toll on my productivity; consequently, I either limited number of tasks or paired one heavy task with a light one so that I don’t overwhelm myself,” she says.

If you are focusing on two different and demanding tasks, the risks of making mistakes are high. This also means you end up setting aside more time to fix the mistakes. “Rarely have I made a mistake because of the strategies I have mentioned of batching similar tasks and limiting the number of tasks to do simultaneously or to switch.”

However, multitasking can be dangerous depending on the task at hand. “If you are driving and talking on the phone, yes. If you are arranging your bookshelf while listening to a podcast, no. Even so, giving each task the attention it deserves gives you room and space to give your best, reduces risks of mistakes and of stress.”

One thing at a time

In the past, Kigali-based journalist Ji Li has experienced the good, the bad and funny side of multitasking. Today, after years of a stress-filled life as a journalist, she says she has finally learnt to focus on one thing at a time.

“As journalists, we tend to have many tasks at hand. The ensuing confusions are sometimes hilarious, if not disastrous. Today, I prefer to focus on doing one thing well. I cannot deny that, in the past, trying to cope up with work had built up stress in my life which also took a toll on my health. Multitasking makes me unable to concentrate and today I am trying to achieve a sense of calm. If needed, I will only multitask in case of emergencies.”

Li says that doing one thing at a time actually helps in finishing that very thing fast and it is an easy way to achieve the “flow state”, which is her current priority.

Meanwhile, Dubai-based teacher Joshna Rebello says multitasking is a myth. “Although we women claim to multitask all the time, it is purely out of necessity to complete tasks within a time-frame, often forgetting the resulting stress thanks to the inefficient way of concluding work.”

Rebello admits that while each one’s definition of multitasking might differ, the result is usually the same. “I juggle the phone while cooking all the time. If you can call that multitasking, I am quite adept at it. It’s a different story when attempting two equally difficult tasks at the same time. I have burnt my food at times while being engrossed at the laptop. I personally feel the brain does its job perfectly when focused on one task at a time.”

She recalls an incident which nearly cost her the job. “It was a busy day, everything had to happen ‘yesterday’ and I mixed up emails. Fortunately, the recipient took it in good spirit.”

Today, she tries to avoid doing too many things at once, preferring to take it one task at a time. “That way, I know I am doing it right and feel satisfied that the job is well done.”

The shiny object syndrome

I’d read somewhere that not only are multitaskers distracted by shiny objects, they also can’t remember where or when they saw that shiny object because they are simultaneously attempting to focus on the task at the hand. Well, this could sound familiar to most of us. Like, for example, forgetting to reply to an email we have seen in the inbox because we are busy trying to post on IG. Or missing an exit because, you know, a WhatsApp message just popped in.

By training our brains to focus on multiple tasks at once, we forgo the ability to be laser-focused when we really want to be. There’s no shut-off valve, just chronic distraction, Clifford Nass, the late professor of communication at Stanford University had claimed. “Our brains are plastic, not elastic. We can mould our brains, but we can’t just snap them back into shape.”

While we’d like to believe in our superpowers, the reality is quite different. If anything, the secret to multitasking is the ability to prioritise, and that is the ultimate skill. Safeguarding my personal interests is my primary focus now. For stress, there is coffee — but there is only so much to be consumed in a day. So, not for me hoisting a flag whilst trying to make cake. With years rolling by, my ability to filter out useless info, organise thoughts and rapidly switch between tasks is getting harder.

Today, my focus is to remember when I put down the rolling pin, the name of the country I have not visited. And more importantly, I’d like to remember where I saw that shiny object.

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