Why multitasking is bad for you

multitask1Look at me! Aren’t I clever! I am so on the ball, so quick and responsive, so on my mental toes that I can do loads of things at the same time, and am not in the least fazed when I’m in the middle of a task and have to switch to doing something else. It’s just multitasking. It’s what you have to do if you want to keep up in today’s fast-paced society.

And we all bought it, didn’t we, the myth that this kind of behaviour is an essential response to the pressure and demands of contemporary life in and outside the workplace. That kind of resigned acceptance would have been damaging enough, but we took it further. We elevated multi-tasking to an aspirational quality, one which separates the whizz kids from the also-rans. The ability to multitask has become a staple phrase in CVs and job applications, along with the declaration that you are a team player and are passionate about, well, you name it.

Multitasking is actually counter-productive. We think we have taken to it like ducks to water, but our attempts to juggle tasks go against the grain of our mental make-up. The term multi-tasking was coined to describe the ability of computers to process several tasks simultaneously. We humans aren’t so good at this. Of course we can do more than one thing at a time. Who doesn’t doodle while on the phone, or cook while talking, or sing in the shower, or walk and chew gum simultaneously?

But when it comes to tasks which require equal mental effort and attention, whether we are multi-tasking or switch-tasking, we make mistakes. We think we are saving time, but when we switch tasks, our brains have to run through a process to disengage one set of neurons and engage another. It can take twice as long to get things done this way as it would if you attended to each task in turn. In the long term, we may lose the abilities to retain information, to focus and to concentrate.

When our boundaries blur, when all demands are equally important because they clamour with equal noise and insistence, we miss important information and lose the ability to filter what is relevant and significant. How would you react if your doctor stopped in the middle of a consultation to reply to a text? Or kept looking at her phone? What is your reaction to a recent case where a medical practitioner halted processing a patient’s medical order to reply to a texted party invitation, and made a significant error when they resumed the task?

There’s a bit of a gender issue here. The debate about men or women being better multitaskers is ongoing, but in many ways women have appropriated this ability and wear it as a badge of honour. Used to multitasking on the domestic front, cooking a gourmet meal while helping with homework while arranging the holiday while sending work emails and so on, many of us apply this mindset in other contexts. The desire to have it all is translated into can do it all. And where did that get us, sisters? Just saying.

What about the effect the multitasking approach to life has on our well-being and our relationships? The compulsion to do everything quickly and at once tarnishes the way we interact. Used to technological speed, we become too impatient to listen, too twitchy to pay attention. We can’t tolerate slowness. We are uncomfortable with silence.

No one wants to be the slow kid on the block. But you can explore ways of managing your multitasking habit and embracing more focused, controlled ways of behaving which will lead to a fuller and more engaged way of life. You can do less and, in more than just the tangible way, achieve more.