The Pitfalls of Multitasking

Societally, we are so used to multitasking that it comes to us almost as naturally as breathing; we conduct meetings, have lunches, socialise, all while remaining mindful of our work schedule, emails, and smartphones. Most of us are so used to multitasking that we probably think that we’re doing it well. So, it may come as a big surprise to find out that we’re most definitely not.


Here’s the damning thing; multitasking doesn’t make you more productive. If anything, it can have the opposite effect. We have somehow forged the misconception that technology will make our lives a little simpler and quicker when in reality, it’s more likely the opposite. How many times have we sent a text or an email when a phone call would have provided the information needed almost instantaneously? Perhaps we’re buying into a world where we feel that less social interaction means increased efficiency? Research has even shown that we may be up to 40% less productive when we attempt to multitask. According to the American Psychological Association, every time we interrupt a task to check on our email, phone, or social media, it takes approximately 23 minutes to entirely re-settle our focus back on that activity. Considering how habit-forming these actions are, that’s an excessively poor use of our time and energy every day.


Unfortunately, as ingrained as multitasking is now in most cultures, it’s almost an expected requirement in the workplace. Many employers are probably expecting their staff to be able to juggle many tasks proficiently at once. We’re only human, however, and this expectation is not just bad for productivity, it’s bad for our brains. Research from Stanford University demonstrated that people who attempt to juggle several streams of electronic information, such as emails and smartphones, struggle to pay attention, recall information, and can’t switch from one activity to another as well as a person who gives their attention to only one activity at a time.


The term multitasking itself was devised at the advent of the computer, to accurately describe the activities that it can do that we can’t. Yes, the human brain is hugely complex, but it’s also incredibly fallible. It isn’t capable of managing the type of pressure placed on it through the expectation that we should be able to multitask like a computer. Our brains allow us to perform executive functions which facilitate the completion of everyday activities.  Maintaining focus and motivation, solving problems, and retaining specific amounts of information at a time, are all facilitated by executive functions. However, if we attempt to multitask, your brain disengages the neurons responsible for completing one task to complete the new one effectively. And this happens every single time we multitask.


Multitasking doesn’t just affect our productivity; it also stems a far-reaching finger of implication into our social lives. It affects our relationships as it creates a technology bubble of distractibility. How can we focus on the people we’re with when our minds are always elsewhere? Nobody wants to be in the presence of someone who continuously checks their phone or only gives them just a fraction of their attention. This kind of behaviour can eventually erode at relationships, resulting in feelings of social isolation.


Unsurprisingly, multitasking and chronic stress are also intrinsically linked. Considering that our lives are bombarded with constant information about work, how can we ever find the time just to relax? Furthermore, and even more concerning, is the impact that multitasking has on our mental health. Anxiety and depressive symptomology are also by-products of multitasking, as we attempt to tackle multiple roles, overuse social media, and consequently neglect our emotional health. It’s clear that change needs to happen; if anxiety or depression, or chronic stress are symptoms that you experience, it’s time to reset the work-life balance.


So how do we do this? Multitasking is so ingrained in our nature that it seems almost impossible to figure out how we can separate downtime from work-time, especially as will-power can only stretch so far. Fortunately, there are a couple of methods which can help reset the balance; meditation is an evidence-based technique which focuses on improving feelings of well-being. This means that it is proven through research; therefore, it’s a pretty fail-safe bet if you want to improve your quality of life.



Restoring the Balance

Similar to the way we train our body to stay healthy, meditation is an approach to training the mind to keep it resilient. Relaxation is not the only goal of meditation, even if it is the most well-known result. The “relaxation response” is an involuntary response of partaking in meditation which reduces the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, resulting in lower blood pressure, improved blood circulation, a reduction in heart rate, stress, perspiration, and anxiety. Also, a concurrent increase in feelings of well-being results from regular meditation, making the whole process a definite win-win.


There is a range of different forms of meditation, each requiring a different set of skills, and each designed for a specific set of issues. For example, concentration meditation involves a deep focus on a single point; this could be on a mantra (transcendental meditation), breathing, or on an image. The premise of concentration meditation is to refocus your consciousness on your chosen object of attention, rather than the interfering thoughts that often plague the busy mind. When a thought pops into your mind during this practice (as thoughts are likely to do), you acknowledge it, and then let it go. This form of meditation is considered to be quite intense, so for a beginner, it may be better to meditate for a few minutes and then build up over time; eventually improving your concentration and reducing stress and depressive symptomology.


Mindfulness is another form of meditation which is becoming increasingly popular in western societies. It encourages the individual to observe wandering thoughts as they pass through our minds. It’s not about contesting or judging these thoughts, but instead being aware of them passively. It is believed that mindfulness allows the practitioner to become aware of the patterns in their thoughts, and how frequently they tend to occur. This helps with achieving an inner balance over time, as we become aware of our own tendencies. Therefore, mindfulness can help to shake old habits and replace them with newer, healthier versions.


Concentration meditation and mindfulness are not the only forms of meditation available. Even doing something as simple as taking a walk can provide some of the same benefits as twenty minutes of concentration meditation. Meet a friend for lunch or even just a coffee while leaving your phone at home, listen to music that you enjoy, use an app that promotes relaxation (while ignoring the contradiction of modern technology and relaxation!). It’s all about letting yourself be present in the here and now, and not bogged down by multitasking and the associated negative thoughts that are leading to high levels of stress.


Some other options to help reduce the negative impact of multitasking include:


Every time you multitask, you’re not just harming your productivity – you’re damaging your brain.  Looking after yourself by allocating your attention to one task at a time will result in finishing tasks at a healthy rate and producing work of a higher calibre.  Therefore, even though multitasking may make you feel as though you’re at your most productive, it is actually taking time-out that increases efficiency and feelings of well-being.


This post is part of our #masterfulmeetings series of articles. Click here to subscribe to our mailing list and we'll let you know when a new post is published in the series.

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Our resident marketing specialist, Dan divides most of his time between drinking coffee and translating developer terminology for the English language

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