HEY WAIT! Before you close this page and never return, let me explain. I'm fully aware that telling working parents not to multitask is like telling them not to breathe. It's how we survive, right? So don't worry...I'm not going to pressure you to go cold turkey and cut multitasking out of your life completely.
In this two-part article, I'm just going to (1) explain the hows, whys, and whens in which this supposed time-saver actually works against us and then (2) explain how to ease out of the habit when it's holding us back and how to use it smarter when we can.
Your Brain on Multitasking
Surprise! Even though it's considered a standard practice in our world, research shows that true multitasking actually doesn't even exist. Our brains are functionally incapable of focusing on more than one thing at a time.
It sucks mental energy. Each time we switch tasks, our brains need to first refocus to the new goal and then figure out the best way to reach it. Although this process usually goes unnoticed to our conscious minds, the act of rapid and repeated task-switching can put a major strain on our mental energy and, over time, can even lead to mental exhaustion.
It sucks effectiveness. Studies show that multitasking negatively impacts all sorts of skills and capacities that are essential to our success at home and work. We're talking big stuff: short-term memory, decision making ability, concentration, ability to filter irrelevant information, attention span, intentionality, patience. Ironically, multitaskers even perform worse at the act of switching from one task to another than single-taskers. I guess this is one instance where practice does not make perfect!
It sucks creativity. It's actually not that multitasking decreases the amount of creative thought we have. It just keeps us from recognizing our brilliance. That's because multitasking squashes our ability to filter out irrelevant information, so innovative ideas end up getting lost in a sea of mental garbage.
Also, creative breakthroughs can be uncomfortable and scary, which can cause a gut reaction to turn away from them. When we're doing more than one thing at once, we have the immediate option to switch away from the discomfort of a brilliant new idea before we even have the chance to recognize and get comfortable with it.
It sucks joy. While multitasking feels good in the moment, it actually has a wide range of harmful consequences to our emotional well-being. If we multitask while we're connecting with others (ie. answering texts at the dinner table), the depth and quality of that connection will plummet. This negatively impacts the overall quality of our interpersonal relationships, which has been widely shown to be one of the top predictors of overall happiness.
Multitasking also sucks our joy when we mix "have to-s" with "want to-s." For example, answering email while watching your favorite TV show decreases the amount of pleasure you get from the show, which can leave your subconscious feeling like you've been cheated out of a good time. This sets off what I like to think of as The Diet Soda Effect. You end up craving more pleasure to fill that hole, and before you know it it's midnight, you're staring mindlessly at a rerun of Who's the Boss, and your inbox is still half-full of emails. No bueno, for sure.
It sucks time. The act of navigating between two or more tasks can actually take our brains 40% longer to process than doing a single-focus activity. So, while doing two things at the same time may feel like we're getting them done faster, it actually takes more time to get each done than if we'd worked on them separately. We also tend to lose track of time when we're multitasking, which leaves us susceptible to using our time unintentionally and inefficiently.
But if multitasking is so bad for us, why do we do it?
Because it feels good. When we do more at once, our subconscious feels we're being more productive, even though we're really not. Unfortunately, that gives us a false sense of awesomeness in all sorts of areas and reinforces the multitasking habit.
Because of this subconscious self-deception, there's also strong pressure (both internal and external) influencing us to multitask. In a society that values speed, results, and constant action, single-taskers get an undeserved bad rap. They are judged by others (and by themselves, interestingly) to be less productive, lazier, more diva-ish, less team-oriented, and less ambitious than their hustle-bustling multitasking peers, even by people who know logically that single-tasking is more efficient.
Powerful stuff, huh? It's no wonder multitasking is so revered in our culture, despite its suckiness in all these areas.
But fear not! There are some ways to flip the switch. Tune in next week for Part Two of this article, where I'll talk about how to determine when it's OK to multitask and when it's not, as well as some concrete exercises to ease out of the multitasking habit when it's just not serving us.
In the meantime, I challenge you to simply take note of how and when multitasking shows up in your life and how you feel when you're doing it. Then, come back here and let me know what you found out in the comments below.
We may be in for some surprises!
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