Why Multitasking is a myth

Multitasking is often seen as proof that someone is a busy person, but does that have to mean that this person is being productive? I believe that the term ‘busy’ is often associated with being successful and more important since you would be doing more things at the same time. Have you noticed that most people who say that they’re busy usually just end up complaining about it, but never actually finishing up all their tasks? This problem has to do with multitasking. For example, take a look at how many open tabs you have and check whether they’re a lot or if you just have a few. Those people, including me, that have many opened tabs just laying there are very likely to fall for the trap of multitasking - or well, the belief that we’re multitasking. We think that we need all those pages and sites open so that we don’t forget about them - forget about our priorities. But, did you know that the word priority didn’t always mean what it means now? In “Essentialism” by Greg McKeown, this word is explained and we get to understand how the meaning has actually shifted and changed over the course of history:

“The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize 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. ( … ) This gave the impression of many things being the priority but actually meant nothing was.”

Looking at this, one could then wonder if multitasking really is as effective and good as many deem it to be. If multitasking makes us have many priorities then it’s essentially just eliminating every single task we need to do by making us confused and stressed out, and that’s not good. So, how do we stop multitasking and start working more efficiently and what really does multitasking do to us? That’s what we’ll be discussing here.

First and foremost, it’s crucial to note that most multitasking isn’t difficult at all when it doesn’t require too much focus. One could, for example, watch TV and talk but it’s the moment where you need to focus on, say, a particular news segment or something that your friend is telling you, that you will start to notice problems with your multitasking. Multitasking makes is extremely difficult to concentrate. Blog.rescuetime.com looked at the data from more than 50000 users of their website and found that the average user spends 40.1% of their day multitasking between communication tools. However, we know that a problem will occur here because people are multitasking since they want to concentrate on many things at once and according to many researchers such as Dr Meyer, that’s going to be difficult.

He explained that “once you start to make things more complicated, things get messier, and as a result, there’s going to be interference with one or more of the tasks. Either you’re going to have to slow down on one of the tasks, or you’re going to start making mistakes.”

Other consequences include:

- increased anxiety

According to neuroscientists, multitasking “drains your mind’s energy reserves” which causes you to get anxious since it would be easy to lose focus.

- no/short state of flow

Since flow requires a steady focus on one certain topic or task, multitasking comes in the way.

- impacts on short-term memory

The University of California did a study in 2011 that indicated there was a negative impact on the working memory which means a decreased level of focus on key information.

All these consequences wouldn’t necessarily exist if the human brain could transition between multiple tasks at the same time, but it can’t. When you’re multitasking you are simply switching between those tasks but very quickly and when you do that, you are paying a mental price. In psychology language, this mental price is referred to as the switching cost.

Our performance is disrupted each time we switch our attention from one task to another, and that is the switching cost.

The last form of multitasking that I wanna mention is doing many tasks in quick succession. Many believe that since you’re not doing them at the same time, you’re not multitasking which means that you skip all those previously mentioned problems. However, in such a scenario, you are forcing your brain to run through two energy-draining stages: 1. It has to goal shift - decide to do one task instead of the other, and 2. It has to activate that role - switch context so that you’re not stuck with the previous’ task’s context. This is really tiring but it also is extremely difficult to do. Especially, if you’re switching between very different subjects.

Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert conducted a study in 2011 which showed that people spent an average of 47% of their entire day just thinking about another task than the one they were doing at the moment.

With all of this said, here are some general tips on how to get a lot of work done without feeling too stressed out:

- Plan out your day and try to stick by the plan

- Give yourself short breaks between your tasks

- Block distracting websites and try to not use your phone

- Have a clean work-space

- Close all tabs that you’re not working with at the moment. You can always find them again by checking your history

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