Why multitasking does more harm than good

Dubai - Understanding self-care inside out

By Delna Mistry Anand

Published: Thu 9 Sep 2021, 10:33 PM

The word ‘priority’ came into the English language way back in the 1400s. It meant the very first thing, and was used in the singular. As explained by author Greg McKeown, only in the 1900s did we pluralise the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality. Somehow, we would now be able to have multiple “first” things. And instead of taking one priority at a time, we made a group of things our priority all at once.

Yes, we are capable of doing two tasks at once. We can cook dinner while watching TV, or send out a quick email whilst talking on the phone. And hence, we grew to believe that multitasking is possible, achievable and even productive. Today, some of us wear it as a badge of honour as if it is better to be busy with several things rather than focused on just one.

This would be ideal if the human brain could actually transition seamlessly from one job to the next, but it can’t. It is impossible to concentrate on two high-level tasks at the same time. What actually happens when you think you are multitasking is that you are rapidly shuttling between tasks.

Our cerebral cortex which controls and manages cognitive processes also determines how, when, and in what order certain tasks are performed. There are two stages to this executive control process:

1)Goal shifting: Deciding to do one thing instead of another.

2) Rule activation: Changing from the rules for the previous task to the rules for the new task.

So, when you think you are multitasking, you are actually switching your ‘goals’ and turning the ‘rules’ on and off very rapidly. In psychology terms, this is called the switching cost, and it is literally the mental price we pay for multitasking. The switches are super-fast, so we may not notice them, but we eventually must bear the consequence of doing this too often.

The price we pay:

1) Reduced attention span: Multitasking forces the brain to divide its attention to properly conduct the tasks. As a result, your attention span is slowly decreasing.

2) Lowered productivity: This happens due to a lack of attention to detail to your work, which is caused by a decrease in your attention span.

3) Increased stress: Though we feel multitasking will ease our schedules, it overwhelms us, causing stress due to constant shifting of focus.

Slower Brain Processes: The constant shifting of attention causes changes in the brain structure, and also slows our ability to regain its focus.

Break the multitasking habit:

If you feel multitasking is actually counter-productive, it’s time to make the change and stop or cut back on multitasking.

1) Focus on one activity at a time: You can actually increase your productivity by placing full attention on one task at a time, completing it, then moving to the next. This way, you are allowing your brain to regain its focus to conduct the next task. Remember that a refreshed brain is a healthy, productive brain.

2) Schedule it: Creating to-do lists and time tables can help you organise your time realistically. Experts say that it works best to plan your day one night ahead of time, and then go over the plan first thing in the morning. You feel more in control and focused, and feel comfortable if any changes prop up.

3) Know which activities you can combine: Surely you were waiting for this one! We can definitely combine our tasks, but choose activities that are more autopilot in nature. For example, doing the dishes or folding the laundry while chatting with a friend.

4) Limit distractions: Willpower is finite. In a moment of weakness, you might reach out and check those notifications on your phone. Keep distractions as far away as possible.

5) The Pomodoro Technique: The Pomodoro Technique was created by a university student Francesco Cirillo who was struggling to focus on his studies. And the biggest strength of this method is its simplicity, all it says is that set a timer for 25 minutes and focus on your task. Once the timer rings, enjoy a five-minute break, and then get back to another 25-minute session. Breaking the task into smaller chunks helps you to remain focussed on the task ahead of you.

And lastly, bring a bit of conscious breathing and mindfulness into your daily life. Slow down, seize the day, savour the moment as though it won’t come back.


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