Is the ability to multitask a blessing or a curse?

We all know how it feels to be busy. Your to-do list is never-ending, with demands requiring you to be doing six things at once, with a variety of different people, all in different places. How on earth can you fit it all in? It is human nature to want to rid yourself of the burden of these tasks and to cross them all off the list as soon as possible. Efficiency is paramount, so doing three things at once helps you reach your goal as quickly as possible. Multitasking is the key. Jokes mocking the perceived male inability to multitask are popular with women, whose supposed ability to juggle three things at once is viewed as wholly positive. But does the ability to multitask really make us as productive as we like to think?

I recently read an article about a businessman who – having arrived in London from America ready for several important meetings – realized that he had completely forgotten to pack any trousers. Thinking back to when he packed his suitcase, the businessman realized that he had been interrupted several times in the process due to the need to “multitask”. Can we really expect to get everything done to the best of our ability if we are trying to focus on three or more things at once? Considering that the businessman could well have been cooking dinner, talking to his partner and leaving to help his son with his homework – all while intermittently packing his suitcase – it is no longer so surprising that his trousers ended up on the wrong side of the Atlantic. Several studies have been conducted into multitasking and how interruptions affect the flow of work. The results are varied, but all agree that being interrupted while working is common and that the affects are often greater than we realize. One study claims that the average person takes a whole 23 minutes to recover from interruptions to work. Another disagrees, saying that recovery only takes five minutes minutes, but that an average of 50 to 60 interruptions per day add up to more than four hours of recovery time!

Whatever the correct statistic, it seems that multitasking is considerably less efficient than many of us would like to think. Shifting mental gears does take time after all, so it is hardly surprising that muddling several tasks up at once would impede concentration on each one. Still think that multitasking works? Think back to the last report you wrote or project you worked on. How many times were you interrupted by a colleague, phone call, or email? Estimate the time all these interruptions took up, you may be surprised!

So the need to focus on one task at a time is clear, but it cannot be denied that it is tempting to multitask. Technology in particular facilitates multitasking, with internet browsers’ multiple tasks making it so easy to have several tasks open and in progress at once. So what steps can you take to maintain focus?

Work from home. Although not always practical, a good tactic can be to simply stay at home and force yourself to work in a controlled environment. Removing all distractions completely is useful particularly when working to a deadline or on a project when you can’t afford to succumb to distractions.

Give yourself goals. Quantifying tasks makes them easier to work towards. Set a goal of three attainable tasks and don’t check your email, talk to colleagues, or switch tasks until they are done.

Switch it all off. One of the biggest distractions these days is technology. You wouldn’t approve of your son or daughter texting while they should be concentrating on an essay, so the same rule should apply to you! Switch off your phone and unplug your computer – the world can wait until your work is done!

As tempting as it is to try to get everything done at once, multitasking does decrease concentration and lead to a loss of focus. Once you have acknowledged the problem, the biggest step is over. Work out which working conditions suit you best and cut out interruptions until you have finished important tasks.

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