It has been a growing trend to praise multitasking.
If you happen not to have pre-teenagers or teenagers at home I invite you to talk to any parent who might be on that stage. Multitasking will show very quickly.
A teenager today can at the same time study, watch TV, listen to music while texting with ten different friends – six via SMS and four via instant message. Depending on the interests this very same kid may be also interacting with his/her friends on social networks, watching YouTube videos and downloading the latest material from the web for whichever random hobby is the trend of the current season.
The fact is that this love for multitasking pervades the work environment as well. In many environments people are happy to present their multitasking ability as a badge of honor. Being able to multitask ends up denoting someone who gets more done by doing more things at once. Multitasking feels like some kind of superpower one can employ when many things are piling up in the backlog.
However, recent scientific studies show that there is a big mistake in our understanding of multitasking. According to the studies heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information. And they experience more stress. Scientists have also discovered that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist.
This might seem counter-intuitive at first, but when referring to multitasking, people are really talking about switchtasking. It doesn’t matter how multitaskers do it, but switching rapidly between two or more tasks is just not very efficient or effective.
A study at the University of California, found that people interrupted from their tasks by e-mail reported significantly increased levels of stress compared to those left to focus on their tasks. Another study has pointed out that stress hormones have been shown to reduce short-term memory.
As David Crenshaw puts in his book The Myth of Multi-Tasking: “The great irony of multitasking [is] that its overall goal, getting more done in less time, turns out to be chimerical. In reality, multitasking slows our thinking... A brain attempting to perform two tasks simultaneously will, because of all the back- and-forth stress, exhibit a substantial lag in information processing.”
A nice remedy for today’s multitasking culture is exercising a lot of focus. You can do this by unplugging unnecessary sources of data. What these sources are, only you will be able to tell. As a rule-of-thumb, if something seems inexplicably more important than it really is – even if for a couple of seconds – you have found a candidate to be unplugged.
You can test for yourself how multitasking affects your response time, by taking The New York Times’ test here. You might be impressed by the results.