So much to do, so little time. Most of us working adults know the feeling. Between job-related tasks, housework, taking care of ourselves and others, and finding time for relaxation and leisure activities, many of us have more things to do in a day than hours to do them. It’s no surprise that so many people feel the need to multitask to try to take care of everything they need to get done. This may include sending emails while on a conference call, calling your plumber while working on a presentation, or rapidly switching back and forth between two projects.
However, working on two or more tasks at the same time only creates the illusion of productivity. If you truly want to be more productive, it’s time to stop multitasking…now! Multitasking can have a number of negative effects on your work, from slowing you down to stifling your creativity. Need convincing? Here are the five most important reasons to stop multitasking and start actually getting more done.
It can lead to more mistakes
It is physically impossible to do more than one thing at a time. When you’re multitasking, what you’re really doing is switching rapidly back and forth between two tasks. Every time you change between tasks, your brain has to take time to refocus on what you’re doing. If you are switching back and forth too often, then you’re never really focused on either task. When you’re not truly, fully focused on your task, you become less accurate and may make careless errors. These could include calling someone by the wrong name, attaching the wrong document to an email, or making a typo that looks unprofessional or affects the validity of a dataset.
It can slow you down
A flow state is when you become so engrossed in a task that you lose track of how much time is passing. You are completely focused on a single task, almost immune to distraction. Without distractions, you are able to get more done in the same amount of time. You cannot achieve a flow state if you are multitasking. During the period your brain is “resetting” between tasks, you are more prone to distractions. Instead of actively and consistently working on the two tasks you’ve set in front of you, you lose a good chunk of time thinking about what you’ll make for dinner, staring out the window, or deleting what you’ve already written.
You’ll get tired faster
Mental energy is a real thing, and like physical energy, you have a limited amount each day. Oxygenated glucose is the fuel your brain uses to function. This gives you the energy to stay focused on tasks and avoid mistakes. Switching between tasks consumes oxygenated glucose, leaving your brain less fuel to focus on and complete other tasks. If you spend your morning multitasking, by the time you reach the afternoon, you have burned through the oxygenated glucose stores you need to continue working effectively. Focusing exclusively on one task at a time is something you can sustain over the course of an entire day without overtaxing your mind. When you’re mentally exhausted, you can’t focus on the task at hand, meaning you complete less in the same time span and are more likely to make mistakes. Trying to multitask gets you to the point of mental exhaustion much faster than monotasking and leads to lower-quality work as the day progresses.
You’ll be less creative
Businesses thrive off creativity. Innovation is crucial to stay ahead of constantly evolving market trends. Creativity, believe it or not, actually requires a significant amount of brain power. Specifically, creativity requires activity in the prefrontal cortex of your brain. Your prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that also helps you focus, predict the consequences of your actions, control your impulses and emotions, plan for the future, and coordinate complex sequences of behaviors. Many of these executive functions are crucial to performing business-related activities. Your prefrontal cortex is not designed for multitasking. Trying to multitask overburdens your prefrontal cortex, slowing your thinking and zapping the mental resources you need to be creative.
The prefrontal cortex also requires quiet time to come up with creative ideas. Ever heard of shower thoughts—the phenomenon where people tend to have some of their most creative ideas when they are in the shower? For most of us, showering is not a mentally strenuous task that requires a huge amount of prefrontal cortex activity to complete. We can pretty much go on autopilot and let our mind water while we complete this routine task. This is exactly the type of downtime your brain needs to innovate. When you’re trying to multitask, your brain does not get a chance to get this kind of a break.
It will lead to more stress
If we haven’t already made it clear, your brain is not built to handle multiple complex tasks at the same time. When you complete a task, you get a little boost of dopamine, the chemical responsible for feelings of satisfaction. You are much more likely to complete tasks when you work on them one at a time. If you work on several tasks and complete none of them, you can feel a sense of failure instead of satisfaction. As you try to multitask, you are, on some level, aware that you are not doing your highest-quality work. This can increase those feelings of failure and stress. Finally, since multitasking can slow you down, you may start to fall behind on deadlines and do more work for yourself down the road, all of which contribute to stress levels. This can also trigger a cycle of trying to multitask to get back on track and falling farther behind.
If multitasking is not the answer, what can you actually do to get more productivity out of your workday? Check out our other productivity blogs for more tips and advice on maximizing your productivity and minimizing your wasted time.