The ability to multitask is widely thought to be a great skill to have in our busy and tech-centric world.
Who doesn’t need to talk on the phone, while sending an email and all the time thinking about dinner that night and cleaning the gutters on the weekend, for example? (We’re kidding, of course!)
Well, there’s a good chance that trying to maintain all those different thoughts at once could be making you less productive, stifling your creativity and even affecting your cognitive functioning.
We can’t really multitask
Neuroscientists who study the brain and human behaviour agree that multitasking is just a myth.
“People aren’t really multitasking. What we think is multitasking is really just our brain switching back and forth between tasks,” explains Earl Miller, professor of neuroscience at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Research backs this up. A comprehensive study
of multitaskers versus single-taskers by Stanford University researchers found that heavy users of multiple forms of multimedia are more easily distracted, find it harder to recall memories and perform less well when switching tasks compared to single-taskers .
In simple terms, if you’re a multitasker it could be time to rethink how you do things.
Multitasking makes you less capable?
There is evidence to suggest that multitasking may reduce your cognitive functioning.
Short periods of switching between tasks saw participants lose valuable productivity time when completing tasks in a study
conducted by the University of Michigan’s Brain Cognition and Action Laboratory.
These results suggest multitasking, or what could better be called ‘serial tasking’ comes at a cost to our brain’s ability to process information.
“Every time you switch between tasks your brain has to backtrack to find where it left off, it has to correct any errors caused by switching. That causes us to make mistakes and become less productive,” says Miller.
Single-tasking helps you focus, and more
If you’re thinking now you should switch to single-tasking to improve your efficiency, you’re not wrong.
The Stamford study shows that single-taskers get less distracted , have better working memory and can perform better when switching between tasks than multitaskers.
But the benefits of single-tasking go well beyond just improved efficiency and productivity, says Miller.
“True creativity comes from following associations – ‘memories’ in your mind – to new and different places. But when you multitask your brain can’t make those associations because your mind is constantly backtracking. So by single-tasking we’re allowing our minds to be more creative,” he says.
How to single-task
“It can often be hard to break the habit of multitasking”, says psychologist Michelle Fung .
“We have to gradually retrain our brains to change our modus operandi and concentrate on one task at a time,” she adds. She has a number of tips to develop a single-tasking mindset.
- Make ‘to-do’ lists and prioritise your tasks so you do the most important tasks first
- Focus on one task and one task alone at any given time
- If you find yourself losing focus, take a break in your work, get up and move around to get the blood flowing to your brain
- Turn off any devices and remove any other distractions
While admittedly it may take some time to form new habits
, Miller provides this encouraging advice for would-be single-taskers:
“Before you even get into the habit of single-tasking, by simply focusing on one thing at a time you will instantly improve the quality of your work.”
That sounds like a good reason to start single-tasking right away.