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Is Multitasking Actually Possible?

Topics: Work Culture

Are you a multitasker? If so, you’ll likely say that multitasking is absolutely possible, even preferable. There is some science to support this idea. However, some of the non-multitaskers among us, and some researchers too, strongly disagree. They think multitaskers are just kidding themselves and that they’d do better work if they focused on just one thing at a time. So, which side is correct?

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Image Credit: ryantron./Flickr

The Case for Multitasking

We’ve learned so much about the human brain and how it works best in recent years. Now, some of this research is being applied to the ever-heated debate about multitasking.

We know that the human brain’s potential for productivity is nearly endless — especially when we’re at our best. Plus, multitasking is arguably a human being’s natural state, at least these days. Think about how difficult it is to focus on just one thing at a time. It requires real effort to concentrate. If it was ideal to complete tasks in this way, wouldn’t we be wired differently and not get distracted so easily?

Also, we know that going against the grain and applying our willpower in an effort to sustain concentration can only last for so long before our willpower begins to give out. If willpower is a limited resource, are we investing too much of it toward trying to focus? After a certain point, are we fighting a losing battle?

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“Drawing on neuropsychological insights about the systemic nature of reward-seeking and self-control, [new studies] imply that while the brain is firing on all cylinders, there is nearly inexhaustible potential for productivity. However, if one fails to seize the moment, subsequent efforts at self-control may yield diminishing returns,” wrote Steven Sweldens, Associate Professor of Marketing at RSM Eramus University, at INSEAD Knowledge. “In the above analysis, ego depletion, if it exists at all, is a by-product of bad timing. Multitasking would therefore be the wisest course, as it makes the most of the windows of opportunity when our willpower is the strongest.”

Whether it’s optimal or not, multitasking is a part of many of our daily lives. Maybe it’s better to stop trying to fight it — to stop trying so hard to force ourselves to concentrate. Perhaps, multitasking is more of a natural fit.

Just Because Multitasking Is Common, Doesn’t Mean It’s Good

There is no doubt that our modern era finds us in a state of almost perpetual multitasking. We have to fight against distractions that come through email, or through our smartphones. Our culture of overwork encourages us to get as much done as we can in as little time as possible. We think it’s good, or admirable, to be busy and stressed. As a result, an awful lot of people find themselves in the habit of multitasking on a daily, or even hourly, basis.

But, just because multitasking is a common practice, that doesn’t mean it’s good. In fact, quite a lot of research supports the idea that we do better when we work on tasks one at a time. Actually, referring to the practice itself as “task-switching,” not multitasking, is perhaps a more accurate way to think of it. When we multitask, we’re not really doing multiple things at once, we’re switching our focus from task to task.

Task-switching takes time. Research shows that shifting our focus like this leads to more frequent errors. (Try a quick test yourself and see if you can buck the trend.) We really do best when we focus in on just one cognitive task at a time.

There is increasing emphasis these days on a practice that’s almost the opposite of multitasking — flow state. Oftentimes our modern lifestyles do demand that we multitask, but research shows we’d be wise to try and keep it to a minimum. It compounds stress, and it could even hurt your brain. Flow, instead, is an optimum state of consciousness where we’re working at a peak level of concentration and productivity. There are some tips you can use to help you achieve flow state. It’s not easy, and it does take practice, but the rewards are well worth it.

Multitasking is possible, but it’s not ideal. We all want to work smarter not harder. So, spend some time thinking about how you really work best. Consider switching out some of the time you currently spend multitasking and instead focus on one task at a time. You might find it makes a world of difference.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you think multitasking works for you? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.


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