Multitasking (also called “task switching”) is nearly universally accepted in the business environment, with the ability to do it well worn like a badge of honor that screams “management material.” However, this acceptance is based on an illusion. Science says that, far from making you more efficient, multitasking can send your productivity into the toilet, putting both the bottom line and your well-being at risk.
Multitasking Interferes With Your Physical Health
When you flood your brain with a ton of info and ask it to do a lot at once, the brain interprets the increased demands as a type of stress, especially when tasks involve a lot of uncertainty and it is not clear what will or will not require a decision. The fight-or-flight response turns on as a result, with upticks in the level of both cortisol and adrenaline. If these hormones stay elevated, they can result in a host of physical issues, such as sleep disturbances, decreased immune system function, difficulty regulating mood, weight gain, higher blood pressure, and more. As those concerns take their toll, you might end up taking more sick days or costing the company more in medical-related expenses.
Focus Can Go Out the Window
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that handles most executive functions, including decision making, determining social behavior, and complex thought. Sadly, the prefrontal cortex also offers a novelty bias. It will give attention priority to whatever it perceives as new, so as you try to get a bunch of stuff done at once, it can be a struggle to focus on what is really most pressing or important. At the same time, when you experience something new, the brain releases neurotransmitters including dopamine that help you feel happy. This phenomenon can trap you in a cycle of distraction and decreased productivity, as you basically end up feeling better emotionally if you go off on tangents.
Multitasking is also problematic to focus in that when you switch your attention rapidly from one thing to another, it actually bums up more fuel (specifically, oxygenated glucose). As your brain becomes more and more nutrient deprived, you start feeling confused, lost and exhausted, and both your cognitive and physical performance plummets.
Moodiness and Impulsivity Become Your Calling Card
Elevated levels of adrenaline and cortisol, combined with nutrient depletion, make it hard for your brain to keep you emotionally stable. You might feel down or anxious. With lowered inhibitions, you might make important decisions before you have really thought everything through, leading to poor outcomes. You also might interact together with your boss and coworkers in a way that is not very appropriate, including using crude language in a meeting or email.
You Might Get Totally Down on Yourself
Rapid task switching is not easy. However, we believe that if we are just smart or driven enough, it will be a piece of cake. Eventually, we put psychological pressure on ourselves, feeling as though we should be able to do it all. When we crash and burn, we can be overwhelmed by paralyzing guilt. To make the situation even worse, the more our performance, mood, and health go haywire, the more we become scared of being judged and isolated. We can also experience a fear of missing out, convinced that we will be passed over for promotions, bonuses, or other opportunities These feelings can engage the stress response further, making it even harder to do what you need to do.
Today’s vision of the productive employee is one where the individual juggles a dozen and one duties all at once, providing superior value to the company as they get more done in less time. Science, however, says that trying to focus on multiple areas at work can move you further away from your productivity goals and that it can put your emotional and physical well-being at risk. Thus, when you have a lot on your plate, the best thing to do is practice task prioritization. Identify which task is most important or urgent and get everything else out of the way, even if you give that job 100 percent of your attention for only 5 or 10 minutes. You might need to switch off your electronics, set your chat status to “busy,” or slip into a conference room to reduce potential distractions. You also can fight the urge to multitask by:
– Telling others you will get back to them or say no.
– Being clear with your co-workers and boss about what you are capable of and speak up when you start feeling overloaded.
– Scheduling particular jobs on your daily calendar so you know you have time set aside to address them.
– Limiting the materials you bring with you or have in/on your desk.
As you make these modifications, keep track of what you get done and compare it to your previous performance, emotional state and health. With viable metrics including a number of calls taken, projects completed, medications used or missed days of work, you can convince yourself and those around you that one thing at a time truly is best.