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Multitasking: Is It Advisable?

The “40-hour week” has been getting longer for years.  The average American works 47.5 hours per week – and that’s not even counting another 4.5 hours they spend catching up on extra work at home.  These numbers are according to a study done by the National Sleep Foundation. No wonder, then, that we turn to things like multitasking in order to cheat the amount of time we have to spend at the office (or home office).

But as our responsibilities have continued to grow and technology has made it easier and easier to stay in immediate contact 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, many experts have started asking questions about how effective multitasking really is. Does it truly allow you to get more done? And are we able to accomplish our work with the same level of quality?

Look around a bit and you’ll find that opinions vary. Some say multitasking is a godsend that keeps them from having a huge stack of work left to do at the end of the traditional work-day. Others argue that it doesn’t actually let you do more because each individual task takes longer when you aren’t able to focus your full attention on it.

So, which point of view is right? As usual, both. There are appropriate situations when multitasking is necessary and other situations where it’s just not the best route to take.  This is exactly why we wanted to present our version of a pros and cons list to let you know when multitasking is likely to be the most helpful and effective, and when it might actually hamper achieving your goals.

Multitasking is good for…

  • Simple tasks. Talking on the phone while ironing, dusting, or sweeping probably isn’t going to distract you so much from the task at hand that it will hamper your work; in fact, it might actually make the work more bearable by providing you with something to alleviate your mind from the drudgery.
  • Waiting. Admittedly, “waiting” doesn’t seem like much of a task, but think about how much time we spend waiting every day? We wait for the coffee machine to spit out enough for a cup, for our computers to boot up, in line to place our lunch orders, on hold with customer service, and while sitting through the previews at movies. If instead we spent some of that time checking emails, reading papers, or making our grocery list, it would probably save us an extra half hour every day.
  • Focus. It may seem counterintuitive to say that multitasking improves focus, but it’s true in the way that we mean it. If you’re used to dealing with multiple things at once, it’s far easier to filter out those things you’re not interested in when there’s a lot of commotion going on around you.
  • Dealing with interruptions. What is multitasking if not a way of self-interrupting? In office settings where you can be interrupted by numerous people numerous times a day, it’s a valuable skill to learn how to stop and start quickly.

Multitasking is bad for…

  • Deep thinking. If you’re trying to multitask on anything that actually requires a decent amount of your attention, you’re doing yourself a disservice and your work will likely suffer because of it.
  • Procrastination. People who “multitask” are often just finding ways to distract themselves from the real task at hand.
  • Efficiency. Yes, multitasking can actually hurt the very thing it’s trying to improve. How so? Because all too often what we’re really doing is creating unnecessary busywork for ourselves because we’ve become accustomed to our brains always doing several things at once. Moreover, people who multitask sometimes find that they have to reorient their brains to the new task and remember what they were doing, which wastes time whenever they switch over.
  • Relaxing. Again, something that multitasking is trying to achieve for you, that being more time to relax, can actually be hurt by engaging in it. Why? Because when we train our brains to split focus, it’s hard to simply shut that off when we want/need to.

So, is multitasking advisable? Well… it depends. You really need to think about what you’re gaining by doing it versus what you might be losing, and always be sure that you’re only using it on things that don’t require much of your concentration.

 

About the Author:

Aileen Pablo is part of the team behind Open Colleges one of Australia’s leading providers of Open Learning. When not working, Aileen blogs about education and career. She is often invited as a speaker in Personality Development Seminars in the Philippines. If you are interested in featuring her works in your blog, you can find her on https://plus.google.com/115271393530477091582/posts.

  • http://www.acalltoaction.net/ Trevor Wilson

    I find the only tasks worth multi-tasking, like you said, are the simple minor stuff. I’ll multi-task while cooking dinner by washing dishes, checking email, etc.

    But for the most part, I feel multi-tasking is a bad idea. Though I do believe there is some truth to the stereotype that women are better multi-taskers than men. But that doesn’t mean it’s ideal for women either.

    In our multi-tasking society, we’ve lost so much efficiency. It’s motion waste on multiple levels. And it’s killed the quality of our work.

    Skilled work requires focus. And focus can only be aimed towards one thing at a time.

    Cheers!

  • http://www.thoughtful-self-improvement.com/Metaphors-for-Life.html Natalie

    You are so right. Multitasking is a double edged sword.

    I find I get my best inspiration while doing mundane tasks like washing dishes.

    I had a real problem focusing when I worked in an ‘open environment office’. Although listening to music while studying really seemed to improve my focus.

    • http://www.acalltoaction.net/ Trevor Wilson

      I have to agree with you on the “open environment office” thing Natalie. I find it highly distracting. I just don’t know how anyone can ever fully give their attention to any task in such an environment.

      Cheers!

  • http://twitter.com/deepexistence Stephen Guise

    Great insight about interruptions and having to start/stop quickly. That’s more relevant than ever today. I do disagree with you on one point though.

    You said multi-tasking is good for focus. I don’t believe that’s true in any way. The brain just doesn’t work like that. Commotion going on around you can only distract your attention and hurt your focus. 
    Studies confirm that fewer things = greater focus. The left and right frontal lobes can each focus on one thing, but once a third is added, one of the others is dropped and productivity plummets. I referenced that study in this post if you’d like to read it - http://deepexistence.com/2011/04/multi-tasking-is-killing-your-productivity/

    It’s especially confusing because you nailed the part about deep thinking and efficiency. To me, those are very much in line with focusing. You have to focus to think deeply and focusing also makes you many more times efficient (as shown in the aforementioned study).

    I think people get into a habit of distracting themselves while they work, and then they feel like they need to do that in order to get things done, but really they’re just strengthening a bad habit. They could learn how to focus if they tried, and their results would improve. 

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  • http://twitter.com/JoannaSwirl Joanna Niechajowicz

    I have recently read an article written by a neurologist Adam Gazzaley who claims that every interruption forces your brain to reset and  regain data all over again. So for you it would be finishing a task that was interrupted, whereas for your brain it would be as if it had to start from the beginning.

    Even though I was inclined to think that in the light of this revelation, multitasking harms your efficiency since it devours your energy and finally motivation to work, I cannot shake off the feeling that maybe such a brain training is not a bad thing…

    So in the end, I have to agree with this post in stating that multitasking belongs to this shady area, which brings you blessings and curse you at the same time :)

  • http://twitter.com/JoannaSwirl Joanna Niechajowicz

    I have recently read an article written by a neurologist Adam Gazzaley
    who claims that every interruption forces your brain to reset and 
    regain data all over again. So for you it would be finishing a task that
    was interrupted, whereas for your brain it would be as if it had to start
    from the beginning.

    Even though I was inclined to think that in
    the light of this revelation, multitasking harms your efficiency since it
    devours your energy and finally motivation to work, I cannot shake off
    the feeling that maybe such a brain training is not a bad thing…

    So in the end, I have to agree with this post in stating that multitasking belongs to this shady area, which brings you blessings and curse you at the same time :)

  • http://twitter.com/ZenNathan Nathanx

    Multitasking has been scientifically proven to not occur at all. Its not possible to do more 2 or more things at once because the brain doesn’t work in that order. This article is interesting but thats not my concern because the title is based off a psychological experience and interpretation of a fabricated concept.

    There is an exception to Multitasking. The human being has senses, and each has instant reaction. So I guess you could make a realistic article about neurobic sensory tasking because that is environmentally natural. Listening to music in a cold dark room while touching objects is one of these tasks.

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