Do Less To Achieve More
Are you multi-tasking? Or are you actually “task-switching”? Here’s why science says multi-tasking doesn’t work
If your mind constantly resembles a busy browser window with multiple tabs open all at once, perhaps it’s time to close those tabs before burn-out sets in. It might sound impressive to be a master at multi-tasking, yet, the reality is anything but.
When it comes to attention and productivity, our brains have a finite amount.
– Guy Winch, PhD., author of Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries
Visualise your brain capacity in the form of a pie chart. “Whatever we’re working on is going to take up the majority of that pie,” Winch explains. “There’s not a lot left over for other things, with the exception of automatic behaviours like walking or chewing gum. Moving back and forth between several tasks actually wastes productivity, because your attention is expanded on the act of switching gears.” He adds, “Plus, you never really get fully ‘in the zone’ for either activity.”
Neuroscience tells us that, contrary to what we think (or hope), our brain can’t actually process tasks simultaneously – instead, what’s really happening is that it’s switching quickly from one task to another. The process is so fast that it seems as though we’re paying attention to different things at once (so it feels like we are multi-tasking). What’s going on though, is a rapidly firing start-stop-start process that not only uses up productive time, but also takes a mental toll.
An American study reported in the Journal Of Experimental Psychology supports this. Researchers found that students took up to 40 per cent longer to solve complicated math problems when they had to constantly switch to other tasks. The study also found that multi-tasking prompts the release of stress hormones, thus triggering a vicious cycle whereby multi-tasking leads to a longer time taken to get things done, which then leads to stress, which then results in the compulsion to multi-task even more.
The truth is, the human brain can handle at most, two complicated tasks without too much trouble. Its two lobes allow responsibilities to be divided equally between both sides – but throw in a third task and the frontal cortex may be overwhelmed, resulting in more mistakes. If you’re struggling with juggling, try these strategies to declutter your mind and improve your efficiency:
Focus on the “one big thing” of each day and get that out of the way first. “Immediate action keeps your mind clear and your to-do list tiny,” advises Chris Barez-Brown in his book Shine: How To Survive And Thrive At Work.
“Being busy is not a badge of honour,” says Dr Daniel Amen, in his book Change Your Brain. You need not agree to everything you are asked to do. Think before you reply and consider if you have sufficient resources to take up the task.
“You’re useless if you don’t self-care,” Adeline adds, pointing out, “If you don’t fill up your own tank, you can’t give to someone else. When you’re worn out super thin, you become super short and snappy. You can’t give your best to others in that state.”
CHECK EMAILS THRICE A DAY
Other than that, turn your email alerts off to stop distractions while you focus on your tasks at hand. Here’s why: a study by University of California Irvine researchers found that the heart rate of employees with constant access to office email, stayed in a perpetual “high alert” mode with higher heart rates. Those without constant email access however, tended to multitask less and were less stressed out.
So instead of attempting to get more done by multitasking, try being more efficient by doing things in batches. “Pay your bills all at once, then send your emails all at once,” Winch suggests, “Each task requires a specific mindset, so once you get in a groove, you should stay there and finish.”