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The Hidden Cost Of Multitasking...?

February 21, 2022, 5-min. read
The Hidden Cost Of Multitasking...?

Do you also feel that being good at multitasking is a big advantage and a valued ability? If you quickly skim through some job adverts, you might get that impression. "We are looking for a representative, sociable, customer-focused professional who loves to multitask..."

But is multitasking really so useful? ...and does it even exist? 

Most people under multitasking envision someone doing 5 things at once. The ultimate symbol of multitasking is a working mother, resembling something of an octopus. Someone who in the middle of an online meeting also feeds a child, ties the shoelaces to another, catching falling sweets from the table while answering the supplier's email on her phone. 

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But can we really do more things at the same time? In the vast majority of cases, no. Our brains are not able to do more than one operation at a time. But we can quickly switch attention between multiple activities or ideas. And we can do so even so fast that we can get the false impression that we are really doing two things at the same time. Imagine listening to a colleague while a text message at the same time, refocusing continuously. 

The only exceptions include activities that are completely automated, we know them perfectly, and require little to no cognitive effort - think taking a phone call while walking. However, as soon as something unexpected happens, even the most automated actions shift to conscious mode.

In short, true multitasking is only a fast and smooth switching between different activities, which in many cases can be actually useful. 

Do you know of someone who draws dribbles on the edge of a paper during a call? Doing so does not have to be a sign of disinterest or disrespect. As the matter of fact, our brain needs to be constantly busy with something. And if it has some free capacity, it tends to start wandering and fantasizing. Therefore paradoxically, if we start doing something unpretentious and rather mechanical, we can improve our ability to concentrate for a longer period of time. It can also help us prevent from moving away from our thoughts completely into the dreamland.

Different expert, different opinion

Recently, a number of studies came to light that has examined whether and what impact multitasking has not only on productivity but also on other aspects, including satisfaction. And the outputs happen to be very inconclusive. While some researchers suggest that it is not really useful and, among other things, leads to reduced productivity and longer time to complete assigned tasks, others state the exact opposite. 

The Hidden Cost Of Multitasking

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One study, for example, showed that such attention switching during intelligence tests reduces IQ scores by an average of 10 points. Another one pointed out that if the respondents were disturbed at work by other requirements, they managed everything faster as just after the interruption, the respondents worked harder and faster to compensate for the time lost by the interruption.

Regardless of the methodology chosen and the conclusions in terms of effectiveness, most research agrees that multitasking leads to problems other than productivity change. With each change of activity, it takes us several tens of seconds to focus on a new thing, with so-called residual attention clinging to the previous activity. The quicker we take turns, the quicker we get tired. We lose our concentration sooner, and the delays in our ability to refocus become longer and longer. 

Multitasking has the greatest negative impact wherever we perform activities that require a high degree of concentration, when we solve new challenges in which learned patterns cannot be applied, or where we have to make decisions.

The conclusion - watch out for the stress loop

In the previous section, we said that multitasking is not necessarily either harmful or desirable. It is important to be aware of all the impacts and risks, and whether in the context of the situation and the tasks, it will be rather useful to work in clearly separated blocks, always focusing on one activity, or combining and alternating them.

The problem?

We didn't stop. If you are under pressure, try to take a deep breath, maybe take a quick walk. Think about the priorities, the optimal order of doing things. Don't panic. Do not cut the tree furiously and in vain with a blunt saw just because there is no time to sharpen it.

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