Multi-tasking: Effective or Harmful?
We all do it: texting while walking, sending emails during meetings, chatting on the phone while cooking dinner. In today’s society, doing just one thing at a time seems downright luxurious, even wasteful.
But chances are, you’re not doing yourself (or your boss, or your friends and family) any favors by multitasking your way through the day. Research shows that it’s not nearly as efficient as we like to believe and can even be harmful to our health.
What we call multitasking is really “task-switching.” Moving back and forth between several tasks actually wastes productivity because your attention is expended on the act of switching gears—plus, you never get fully “in the zone” for either activity.
Contrary to popular belief, multitasking doesn’t save time. In fact, it will probably take you longer to finish two projects when you’re jumping back and forth than it would to finish each one separately. The same is true even for behaviors as seemingly automatic as driving: In a 2008 University of Utah study, drivers took longer to reach their destinations when they chatted on cell phones.
What tends to save the most time is to do things in batches. Pay your bills all at once, then send your emails all at once. Each task requires a specific mindset, and once you get in a groove you should stay there and finish.
Switching between tasks can cause a 40% loss in productivity. It can also cause you to introduce errors into whatever you’re working on, especially if one or more of your activities involve a lot of critical thinking. Multitasking adds way too much stress to our bodies. It often causes headaches, stomachaches, depression, & weight gain.
Being distracted during mealtime can prevent your brain from fully processing what you’ve eaten. Because of that, you won’t feel as full, and may be tempted to keep eating—and to eat again a short time later.
Experts recommend that we refrain from eating at our computer, turning on the television while eating, and to truly pay attention to their food. Slow down and take a break from the screen to focus on each bite.
You may think you’re a master multi-tasker, but, according to a 2013 University of Utah study, that probably means you’re actually among the worst. The research focused specifically on cell phone use behind the wheel, and it found that people who scored highest on multitasking tests do not frequently engage in simultaneous driving and cell-phone use—probably because they can better focus on one thing at a time.
Too many areas of focus can actually harm performance on creative problem-solving tasks. With so much already going on in their heads, multi-taskers often find it harder to daydream and generate spontaneous “ah-ha” moments.
Texting or talking on a cell phone, even with a hands-free device, is as dangerous as driving drunk—yet that doesn’t stop many adults from doing it, even while they have their own children in the car.
It’s not just driving that puts you at risk for the consequences of multitasking, either. Research also shows that people who use mobile devices while walking are less likely to look before stepping into a crosswalk. And in one study, one in five teenagers who went to the emergency room after being hit by a car admitted they were using a smartphone at the time of the accident.
One of my favorite multi-tasking quotes is from an interview with British actress Emma Watson. She said “I dropped my iPhone in my soup at lunch today. I think it may be time to tone down my multitasking!”
I can relate!