Multitasking simply means doing more than one task at a time. This thing done could be a physical or mental activity. To achieve this, attention and concentration towards the tasks at hand have to be aroused and sustained over that period of time.
The main aim of multitasking is usually to get more things done in a shorter period of time, meet deadlines, increase performance, etc. however, this does not always turn out to be the case. The problems associated with multitasking mainly stem from the inability to sustain concentration on the different tasks simultaneously. This is not our fault because the demands of our jobs, families, and other commitments leave us with little or no choice than to try combining responsibilities in order to save the day. We usually do this subconsciously.
Examples of multitasking include reading a book while listening to music with lyrics, replying a mail while driving, etc. The outcome of this in most cases is that one activity suffers because of the other. You are not likely to get the most out of an arithmetic problem if you are seeing a blockbuster movie at the same time.
All these happen because of the intrinsic physiology of our brains, and to make the most of the situation, we need to understand how the human brain operates. More of the drawbacks and solutions to the problems of multitasking will be discussed in greater details below.
Drawbacks of multitasking
Multitasking has its own advantages but they share some drawbacks that are worth noting. Many illustrations would be used to simplify the subject matter at hand. It may interest you to know that the term, multitasking is primarily a term in the computer language where the RAM is divided into several parts to carry out different functions. This has led people to believe that the human brain can do the exact same thing. But it is quite different with us.
We cannot multitask. Can you travel by air and train at the exact same time? No! Instead, we switch from one task to the other quickly, so it appears like multitasking, but what we actually do is called serial tasking. Some of the drawbacks of multitasking include:
- Increased rate of errors: At one point or the other, you must have tried typing faster than your normal speed while answering a call. How did it end up? More mistakes, right? This is because your brain had not been trained for that kind of thing. The same applies to multitasking. It is safe to say that you cannot be faster than your shadow. Increased rate of errors leads to low quality of work. This in turn, affects how an employee is perceived at work. Also, errors occur due to the concept called continuous partial attention, a term first described by Linda Stone for a situation where you move from one data stream to another without fully processing the previous ones. This leads to many oversights and errors.
- Inefficiency: The human brain has been designed to prioritize things. For example, if you are losing blood, more blood from surface tissues rushes to the deeper organs to keep the person alive which is definitely more important than any of those surface tissues. If you focus on seeing something with your eyes, what happens to your sense of taste? Do you even remember it at that particular moment? In essence, multitasking is like trying to engage your brain with more things than it can effectively deliver. So, the input eventually becomes far greater than the output, leading to a decreased efficiency.
- Reduced ability to learn and understand: Understanding usually comes with depth of knowledge of a subject. Since multitasking does not give you the opportunity to go deep in just one area, you end up scratching the surfaces of many things without knowing any one in depth. It becomes a situation of Jack of all trades, master of none. This affects people because to be the very best at what you do, you have to focus on it alone. Check out examples of the greatest sports people, actors, artistes, etc.
- More time wasted: For much information to be retained in an individual, it has to be broken into small chunks over a period of time. This is similar to the process of digestion in the body. When multitasking, the brain is usually loaded with too much information about different things such that it is not able to reproduce what has been imputed into it. This results in increased forgetfulness, increased rate of errors, which would take more time to correct, leading to a longer time taken to achieve the tasks.
- Generates frustrations: This is the result of the above events. The fatigue generated from having to constantly switch between tasks eventually leads to frustration and lack of happiness. This increased emotional stress level can trigger a whole sequence of events that affect the overall health of an individual.
As the complexity of each task increases, the ability to multitask in any sense reduces because complex activities require more concentration which is not there in multitasking.
How to identify it
Experiments and investigations could be carried out to achieve this. A system could be developed where all the interruptions in the next few days would be noted down, when they occur, the reasons why they occur, and who made them occur.
Since most of multitasking is done subconsciously, it is better to do this with the aid of a specialised software, so that human errors do not interfere with the results. The software must be simple to use and user friendly, so that it does not complicate everything the more.
This task manager will simply ensure that any interruption is duly recorded. From here, you can simply spot what is going wrong and address the issue swiftly.
Eliminate as many factors as possible
To get the best out of any situation that requires multitasking, you need to do some specific things:
- Make a to-do list: This gives you an idea of how your day is likely to turn out, and it also helps you to prioritize tasks.
- Group tasks into blocks where possible: For example, you could dedicate 2 hours a day to anything social media. This would include all networks that you are active on, your favourite shows, etc. If you feel a task is too big for you, break it into smaller pieces, so that you do not lose focus of the whole thing.
- Mute your mobile phone, turn off social apps: These days, we are all aware of the effects of mobile phones in our daily lives. A lot of time is wasted on endless chats, calls, etc. sometimes in order to focus, turning off these apps has proven to be effective.
- Read emails only at the beginning of each day: Instead of checking your mails countless times every day, why not dedicate an hour for it every morning. Compartmentalizing like this ensures that whatever you are doing at a particular time has your full focus and undivided attention. If not, pop-ups and notifications would just end up distracting you.
- Work in a silent focus room: Noise has never been an acceptable environment for the human brain to be the most productive: This is useful especially if you have a deadline to meet. Sometimes, when you lock yourself up in a room for hours, you can get inspiration and ideas which were not likely to come when you were distracted by kids, colleagues, negative people, or your mobile phone.
- Begin a new task only when a previous one has been completed: This enables you to give each task the best of your attention, energy, and time. Start out with the most important and difficult tasks. Then move to the easier ones later. A job fully done is always better than 2 jobs half done.
- Decline offers if you are still busy with previous ones: Rather than allowing greed to destroy you, it is better to only bite what you can chew at a particular time. If you have many clients on your neck, politely decline some of them or work out better conditions to make sure you do not disappoint any of them.
- Schedule meetings for afternoon: If meetings are held early in the morning, some employees might still be feeling sleepy or would even be late to work for one reason or the other. If held in the evening, most people’s minds would be on returning back to their families or just ending the day, therefore the meetings would not be productive. Midday energy levels seem to be optimum for meetings, so a time like 2 pm or 3 pm is perfect for meetings.
- Use noise cancelling headphones: This is only necessary when you are working alone, and do not have any business with someone at that particular moment. This is so because you do not want to offend people who are working with you by completely zoning out with your headphones.
- Phone calls only in conference rooms: It is very important to establish ground rules in your place of work. This way at least, everyone knows what they are in for before coming.
- Keep your work area tidy: People tend to be easily distracted by many tasks on their desks. Why not arrange everything neatly? It gives you a better sense of calm and ensures that you are not overwhelmed by the bulk of these papers, files, and whatever it might be on your desk.
- Know your strengths and weaknesses: No matter how hard you try; you may just keep finding yourself glued to your mobile phone or you might just discover that you cannot do without checking your mails every second. You can therefore, employ strategies to block this by using distraction free apps. For example, you could work together with productive people. The atmosphere becomes contagious, and you are inspired to do your best.
- Delegate where necessary: You cannot do everything yourself. Assign tasks to subordinates where possible.
- Take frequent breaks: This is to reduce the impact of stress and give you time to refresh. Your health matters.
Multitasking is something we cannot fully avoid. However, we can modify our response to the overwhelming demands of life to our own advantage. For example, we could combine tasks that we have learned to perfection with each other, and we could also combine tasks that require different parts of the brain to work.
Technology also has a role to play in getting the best out us. The aim is to minimize distractions to the barest minimum, while increasing our attention span and focus for each task that we do.