Multitasking is the idea that you can do multiple things simultaneously and be more productive as a result. Ha! Research has shown that multitasking is a myth and can lead to burnout, mistakes, and stress. When you try to do multiple tasks at the same time, you are dividing your attention between them, which can lead to decreased performance in all of them. This is because your brain can only focus on one thing at a time, and switching between tasks can cause a lag in your cognitive processing, resulting in errors and mistakes.
This isn’t a theory or newfangled idea, but one discussed and studied for almost 300 years. In Christine Rosen’s article ‘The Myth of Multitasking‘, Rosen cites Lord Chesterfield’s (aka Philip Stanhope) Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman in which he proclaims “There is time enough for everything, in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once; but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.” That was in 1747. Scientific American backs this up in their article from 2010 stating “When we do two things at the same time, our brain divides the work in half, literally: each hemisphere concentrates on one task.”
Digital distractions, such as social media notifications, email notifications, and instant messaging platforms, can be very disruptive to an employee’s workflow. Constant interruptions by digital distractions can make it difficult to maintain focus on the task at hand, and this can lead to decreased productivity and increased stress. Dare I say that the constant stimulation of digital distractions can create a sense of addiction or compulsion, making it difficult for employees to disconnect from work and recharge. This can contribute to chronic stress and burnout over time. Is there a bit of FOMO being disconnected from colleagues, a project, or friends during a time window when you’d usually be inundated with updates? Yes, you may need the silence, but it doesn’t mean it won’t feel surreal.
When you try to perform multiple tasks at once, the brain is not able to fully focus on any one task. This can result in poorer retention of information in short-term memory, as brains are not able to fully encode the information due to the competing demands of the different tasks. Research has shown that even small distractions can have a negative impact on cognitive performance, and the more complex the task, the more detrimental multitasking can be. The modern world’s demand for attention constantly with notifications and group chat messages can lead to increased stress levels, as your brain is constantly trying to switch between different tasks and manage competing priorities. Stress, fatigue, and decreased performance and productivity can result because human brains are not designed to handle multiple tasks simultaneously.
What to do instead
Instead of multitasking, what employers should be encouraging is effective task management and organisation. With those strengths, the tasks are not neglected and can be worked on concurrently, but not simultaneously. It’s better to focus on one task at a time and prioritize your workload, which can lead to better productivity, fewer errors, and a happier, more fulfilled work life.
To combat burnout caused by digital distractions and multitasking, it’s important for workers to set boundaries and limit the amount of time they spend on digital devices. This isn’t even limited to work though, the family WhatsApp group may be pinging you more often than your brain can handle. If you are on your lunch break or with a friend, don’t be tuned into the chat group or doom scrolling. Commit 100% to the break. Draft an outline on note paper to get a break from the screen. A study showed that longhand note taking can be better for learning than typing notes. This would work in concert with one solution to managing digital distractions which is to limit device use to necessary tasks. Employers can also take steps to reduce digital distractions in the workplace, such as implementing policies around email and messaging etiquette, encouraging breaks and time off, and promoting a culture of work-life balance.
In order to perform tasks optimally, it’s best to focus your attention on one task at a time. Matthew Solan wrote a piece focused on ‘The art of monotasking‘, explaining that “the brain cannot devote equal attention to multiple tasks that require high-level brain function.” Otherwise, there is an increased risk of burnout, which is characterized by physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. In the workplace, multitasking can also lead to decreased job satisfaction, as employees feel overwhelmed and overburdened with tasks. This can result in high turnover rates and lower productivity levels. There is even research about the future neurological impact of this.
Multitasking is a myth and can have negative impacts on cognitive performance and stress levels. Instead, it is better to focus on one task at a time in order to maximize productivity and reduce stress. This means minimizing digital distractions, setting priorities, and taking breaks when needed to recharge and refocus.