Why Multitasking Is Overrated

Hey, you! Yes, it’s you I am talking to… The one scrolling on their phone while ticking off an endless to-do list, replying to emails and trying to make a pitch deck for tomorrow's meeting. Take a nice deep breath and pay attention: It turns out multitasking is officially bad for your work and your wellbeing.

Social media is rife with people saying that you should be doing 5 things at once and living life at a million miles an hour but there is plenty of evidence out there to suggest that multitasking is actually making life more difficult for us all. 

Let’s look at the facts. If you were trying to have two conversations at the exact same time the result would likely be that both are mediocre at best, so why do we think that splitting our attention between two tasks at once is any different? Yeah you’ll probably get them done eventually but the chances are with only half the attention given to each, they’ll end up half as good.

It’s also kinda slowing you down, because 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.

Not only is it detrimental to our final output, but what about our poor overworked brains? Whilst we think we’re focussing on both tasks simultaneously we’re simply flitting our attention from one to the other, resulting in reduced efficiency. This is called attention switching. It has been scientifically proven that it takes greater effort for the executive brain to keep switching than it would to concentrate on one task at a time making multi-tasking a far more mentally draining strategy.

However, this doesn’t mean we can only ever do one thing at a time. Different kinds of tasks depend on different parts of the brain, so if you were to work on a presentation whilst drinking a cup of coffee, the part of your brain that focuses on simple habitual tasks could work in harmony alongside the part that is needed for more complex tasks.

And a scary one for all those creative heads out there: Multitasking requires a lot of what's known as "working memory," or temporary brain storage, in layman's terms. And when working memory is all used up, it can take away from our ability to think creatively.

Too much focus can actually harm performance on creative problem-solving tasks,  with so much already going on in their heads, creative people trying to multitask often find it harder to daydream and generate those spontaneous lightbulb moments that make the magic.

But what’s the alternative? I hear you cry. In an increasingly busy world who even has the space to do one thing at a time? Well, this isn’t to say you can never multitask. Many jobs require this. It’s more a case of being mindful. Try to prioritise and plan your time, give your brain a rest when needed and don’t over commit.

Why not try batch tasking? Focussing on one task at a time, even if you don’t complete it the first time around you have dedicated a specific amount of time to solely work on that one thing meaning it gets your full attention. First, reply to your Slacks all at once, then focus on that presentation for an hour, then send your emails in one go. Each task requires a specific mindset, and once you get in a groove you should stay there and find it easier to finish. 

Whatever your solution, keep this in mind next time you over commit to tasks and remember you might not be doing yourself any favours. Take a step back, breathe and plan ahead. Pacing yourself is the new multitasking.