Why Multitasking Doesn't Work at Work
There is time enough for everything, in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once; but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.”
— Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield
Here’s a fun fact: the term multitasking originated in the field of computing, where it describes a computer’s ability to perform two or more processes at the same time. Today, we often use the word when we’re talking about people doing multiple things at once, such as reading a book while watching TV and sending text messages.
Our brains function a little bit like biological computers, but there are some important distinctions. One of them is that while computers are very good at doing many things simultaneously, human brains are awful at it. For humans, trying to multitask is a surefire recipe for performing all of our tasks poorly and mentally burning ourselves out in the process.
The Myth of Multitasking
On the surface, multitasking seems like the ideal way for us to get more done in a shorter amount of time. But the reality is that while the number of tasks we complete might increase, the quality of our work universally declines.
Research has shown that multitasking temporarily lowers our IQ by 10 points, making us less capable at solving complex problems. We also process information differently when our attention is divided, leading to poorer retention and less understanding of learned material. And to top it all off, the time-saving benefits of multitasking are small because our brains can’t process two decision-making operations at once.
Armed with this knowledge, it would appear that the solution to multitasking is simple: just stop doing it. But it can be surprisingly difficult to avoid distractions in a world where distractions have a way of coming to you.
Rise of the Attention Deficit Trait
In our modern technological world, we face more challenges to concentration than ever before. Phone calls, email, text messages and social media give us unprecedented connectivity with others, but they can also serve as near-constant interruptions that erode our ability to focus on what we’re doing.
Over time, an environment filled with continuous distractions can cause us to develop a neurological phenomenon called attention deficit trait, or ADT. First identified by psychiatrist Dr. Edward Hallowell, ADT shares many symptoms with ADHD, including distractibility, impatience and a feeling of inner frenzy. In short, ADT is the byproduct of information overload as we struggle to cope with incessant demands on our attention.
Under these conditions, people who are normally smart, talented and responsible suddenly find it incredibly difficult to solve problems, be creative and manage their time effectively. Luckily, ADT is a temporary condition that can be reversed with a little practice.
Set Boundaries to Save Your Brain
The best way to avoid falling victim to ADT is to set clear boundaries. One goal of setting boundaries is to minimize distractions and confine interruptions to designated times, but it’s also about not overworking ourselves so we aren’t as easily distracted in the first place.
Here are a few simple guidelines you can follow when you’re trying to get work done:
- Turn off notifications or silence your phone. This will eliminate the distraction of incoming calls, texts and emails so you can focus on the task at hand. If you can’t afford to go completely off the grid, at least silence alerts from social media and nonessential applications.
- Establish designated times for checking your email and messages. This might be at the beginning and end of each day, or perhaps at a few intervals throughout the day. If possible, try to schedule this during parts of the day when you are naturally less productive.
- Post office hours and times of availability. Let co-workers and clients know when they can call or meet with you and when you need uninterrupted time to work. Keeping others informed of your schedule will help them minimize any distractions they may cause you.
- Don’t take on more work than you can handle. An excessive workload or unrealistic deadlines will only create stress and tempt you to try to multitask. Saying “no” to assignments can be uncomfortable, but reasonable co-workers and clients will understand.
- Take breaks and set times to stop working. Exhaustion from overworking can seriously impair our ability to concentrate. This is why it’s important to take regular breaks and refrain from working at all hours of the day. Take the time to refresh your mind and body, and the quality of your work will benefit from it.
Remember: humans are the sum of what we pay attention to. What we focus on determines our experiences, our knowledge, and our fulfillment in life. If we want to truly be in control of our own lives, we must dole out our attention wisely and with purpose.