If you think you’re a good multi-tasker, I’m here to tell you that you’re not.
We create a lot of personal myths about our ability to multi-task and they are generally not true.
Doing several jobs at the same time, or multi-tasking, sounds like a panacea. After all, what could be better than doing more than one thing at once? Multi tasking sounds like the ideal situation. Surely doing two tasks at the same time will accomplish more than just doing one thing at a time?
In our lives, it sometimes feels like we are all multi-tasking all of the time, but, if the truth be told, multi-tasking is a myth. In reality, most multi-tasking simply involves switching between tasks multiple times so that each task is being progressed a little at a time. Even computers that multi-task are, in fact, switching tasks many thousands of times in order to provide the illusion that multiple tasks are occurring at the same time. The truth is that multi-tasking will rob you of the time it takes to switch tasks each and every time that you switch.
Let’s assume you’re preparing a presentation, answering emails and attending a telephone conference at the same time. Don’t assume this is a ridiculous example, this is a very common example amongst people in the office where I’ve been working recently. People spend time on teleconferences and, as they are not always fully involved in the meeting, get distracted by their other tasks. Each time someone gets involved in their email, the teleconference fades into the background, meaning that if a question is asked, it often has to be repeated and some context provided to bring the “multi-tasker” back up to speed.
Similarly, switching between email and a presentation takes time as the multi-tasker’s brain has to re-align onto a new task. If you’re writing a presentation and you stop to respond to an email, when you go back to the presentation, you have to switch programs, think about where you are, perhaps flick back to remember where you were in the flow of the presentation and try to remember what you were going to add to the presentation next. All of this is time that you wouldn’t have had to spend if you’d stayed focussed on the presentation in the first place.
Unless it’s an unconscious task baked into our evolutionary makeup, like breathing or scanning the savannah for hidden tigers, I can guarantee that you are a terrible multi-tasker; even if you don’t know it yourself!
The key issue here is that each of the tasks that are being juggled are language oriented tasks, so the brain simply cannot hold more than one of the tasks in focus at any one moment, hence rapid switching has to occur to provide the illusion of multi-tasking. You may think you’re being clever and working efficiently, but in fact, you’re probably doing multiple tasks badly and wasting time switching between them.
The only true multi-tasking occurs when you combine tasks that use different skills. For example, combining a routine manual task, perhaps polishing something, with a language task, such as listening to a lecture. Anyone who has had a conversation with someone who is knitting will understand this point! If you can come up with combinations such as this, go for it, otherwise, accept that multi-tasking is a great idea but often beyond our reach.
You are, quite frankly, better off simply focussing on one task through to completion or a logical break-point than trying to juggle multiple tasks. You will find that by focussing on a single task, you will not only to a better job on it, which will give you better job satisfaction, but you will also do the task faster than you would if you were constantly interrupting yourself. You may even find that, by focussing on tasks through to completion, the quality of your work improves as you experience the elusive moments of “flow” when you’re fully focussed.