Is Multitasking Really A Good Thing?

Over the years, the ability to multitask has become a point of pride for many, and is commonly seen as a necessary skill for any professional position-if not the very backbone of a productive worker bee. Answering an email while reading a text and talking on the phone (with the tv on in the background and while cooking a fabulous meal) is a slightly preposterous, but easily imagined scenario. Conversely, recent research points out the flaws in multitasking.

Neuroscientist Earl Miller believes “People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves. The brain is very good at deluding itself.” Others suggest that productivity can be reduced by as much as 40 percent by the mental blocks created when people switch tasks. So why do we still put the ability to multitask on such a pedestal? And can we come away from that in order to make more room in our busy lives for monotasking? Perhaps, as in many other things, balance is the answer.

Our team recently had a discussion around the pros and cons of the “Pomodoro technique”, a time management method that advocates setting a timer for 25 minutes, and then spending those minutes focused on a single task. When the timer goes off, you take a four minute break, and then do another 25 minute session. You repeat this exercise at least four times, or until the task at hand has been completed. And it’s a great idea, one that’s very popular with lots of writers! The short breaks seem like a reward for good work, while providing space and time to clear your head and take a breather in between buckling down and taking care of business.

But while my colleagues and I felt this was an interesting and useful technique for serious bulk task completion and general ‘getting stuff done’, we disagreed on whether it should be a regularly implemented part of the working day. Some of us loved the idea, while others (okay, it was me!) bristled at the idea of being corralled into continuous monotasking, day in and day out.

Then I spoke with Sarah Lewis, community manager for the renewable energy crowdfunding company Trillion Fund  and the brains behind Brighton Writers Retreat,  who was keen to share her thoughts on multitasking and its pitfalls-since she is constantly multitasking, she says it’s gotten her into a few scrapes! While she enjoys using the Pomodoro technique in her writing workshops (although she says her four minute breaks are more like twenty), she also says “to be honest, the biggest pitfall of pathological multitasking is the risk of sub-par products”-something with which I fully agree.

Sarah shared a personal story with me, one that I think does a good job of illustrating what can go wrong with all multitasking, all the time. “I once emailed an editor a love letter obviously meant for someone else but was so busy doing 15 things at once I just sent it to the wrong person. I accidentally sent it to the editor of a magazine I was working on. I ended up calling the editor in a flap, begged him to delete it without reading it. He was very good and said he did delete it but I’ll never know!”

So what does that mean for the rest of us? I think it brings us back around to balance. While multitasking can lead to some serious (and humorous, in retrospect) problems, it surely has its place in the workspace. But monotasking has its benefits as well in giving ourselves time and space to think through our actions thoroughly. So with that in mind, I’ve come up with 3 tips to help you balance the two successfully.

Batch your work-Studies have shown that doing similar tasks at the same time is more efficient than trying to do two completely different things at the same time. For example, in a 2008 University of Utah study, drivers took longer to reach their destinations when they drove while chatting on cell phones. So what does this mean for you? Send all your emails in one go (perhaps at the beginning and end of the work day), sort your to do list in one go, make any phone calls in one go. Each type of task requires a specific groove, and once you get in that groove, you may as well stay there.

Eliminate distractions-What’s most important? What needs your immediate attention? Multitasking is often a result of need – the kids are yelling, the phone is ringing, there are emails that just need a quick response – but if we accept that much of life, both personal and professional, is spent multitasking, then trying to eliminate distractions and focusing on one task at least helps to balance the scales a bit.

Accept “good enough” – Take the pressure off, accept “good enough” (ref: the “good enough” mother, a concept developed by pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott and embraced by harried mums worldwide), and do what works for you at the time. A bit of multitasking here, a bit of monotasking there – as long as you get the job done somehow you can still have 5 (or should that be 4?) minutes to put your feet up, and have a chocolate biscuit – that’s a sort of multitasking that we can all get behind!

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