The concept of multitasking being a good thing is a myth, albeit a popular one. Your brain can only focus on one thing at a time.
To do something well you need to focus your full and present attention on it. What we call multitasking is actually your brain flicking from one thing to another—which it can do very quickly—so that each task gets a bit of your attention and the processing power of your brain.
If you have many things on the go at once then you can’t be very focused on any one of them, regardless of what you may believe. You will divide your focus over a number of things and none of them will get your full attention.
For regular, small or trivial tasks that may not be a significant issue, although it has the potential to make every one of the things you are doing take longer. If, however, you feel that you spending too much time on a lot of trivial things then this may be something to look at.
For more complex tasks that require full attention, multitasking will inevitably result in the task taking longer and may have the added effect that you will make more mistakes, miss things or do an incomplete job that needs to be reworked.
This is because when someone thinks they are multitasking their brain is actually trying to track and deal with a number of different thoughts and activities in their mind at the same time.
Driving is a good example of where you can more easily allow your brain to flit from task to task without significant reduction in the quality and time taken to do the driving itself.
The reason for this is that, for most of us, it is possible to think about other things or even hold a conversation whilst driving because the skill of driving is so automatic to us.
You will have noticed what happens though if you are driving an unfamiliar car or in an unfamiliar place – your ability to drive and talk and drive and drift off somewhere else is less easy to achieve.
You need to focus and your mind knows it and it does the switch for you so that you are focussed on your driving.
The point is that multitasking may work when you are doing tasks that you are unconsciously competent at, they are routine and no-one else is impacted.
Multitasking does not work when tasks are not routine, they are relational or you need to give them conscious thought to achieve. Examples of when multitasking doesn’t work include:
Spending time with your kids whilst still thinking about work—You are not connecting with your kids, which they will pick up on and you will not experience the joy of it either. It’s also unlikely that the work thinking is of that great a quality.
Cooking dinner whilst on the phone—Relational impact, the other person does knows you are not giving them your full attention. Dinner may also suffer.
Watching TV whilst working on your laptop—To get any joy out the TV programme you need to focus on it. And to get quality work done, you need to focus on that without distractions from the TV.
Turn one off or record the programmes you want to watch and watch them after you’ve done your work.
Worker smarter, not harder
If you want to be efficient in what you do, especially the complex and important things in life then you need to change the belief that multitasking is a good thing.
Instead, focus your attention on the thing that needs to be done and then make time for the other things later. Try it out for a day. Spend a day focusing on one thing at a time and notice how much more efficient and effective you are.
Another benefit of eliminating the multitasking myth from your thinking is that you feel better about what you have done.
When you do something well and are satisfied with what you’ve achieved, you don’t waste time worrying about it, hoping it’s OK or constantly review it to see if it’s perfect or if something has gone wrong.
You’ll have completed it with focus and efficiency knowing it’s your best shot or good enough for the outcome you have in mind. No more time is wasted on it once it is done and you can move on easily to the next thing.
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About the authors
Karen Meager and John McLachlan are NLP master trainers, leadership development specialists and the co-founders of Monkey Puzzle Training.