The Multitasking Myth: Exploring Productivity in a World of Many Tasks

The Multitasking Myth: Exploring Productivity in a World of Many Tasks

  March 7, 2024

SEB Marketing Team

Multitasking, a  computer term developed in the 1960s, describes the apparent ability of computers to process multiple tasks simultaneously. This term has become synonymous with efficiency and productivity in the corporate world. But is it really the productivity booster we believe it to be, or is it merely a myth? Let’s delve into the pros and cons of multitasking and its complex relationship with productivity, exploring different perspectives and shedding light on the latest research findings.

What is Multitasking?

Multitasking refers to the ability to perform two or more tasks simultaneously and was initially a computer term to describe its ability to accomplish multiple tasks simultaneously.  However, this is not actually correct, as a computer’s rapid processing speed is still only processing one thing at a time – just very quickly. A human brain can also switch rapidly between tasks and many believe it takes a high level of cognitive ability to execute this skill, which is why many in the business world claim to have this ability.  But it’s important to realize that computers and human brains do not function in the same way. When faced with multiple tasks, productivity tends to suffer as our attention becomes divided.

The Truth About Multitasking

Rapidly switching between tasks can lead to mistakes. The human brain gets tired which leads to a decline in cognitive efficiency. Multitasking has been shown to reduce productivity up to 40%. This is especially true when tasks are complex or new. Over time, taxing your brain continuously by overloading it with multiple things to do at once, lowers IQ and creates more stress in the body

Understanding the Brain’s Multitasking Mechanism

Our brains have a limited capacity for multitasking, with the prefrontal cortex playing a crucial role in attention and task coordination. When we attempt to multitask, the brain’s ability to switch between tasks becomes compromised, hindering productivity and increasing the risk of mistakes. This is because the executive function of the brain operates with two functions with each task: rule activation and goal shifting. These automatic decisions happen with each task so each time a task is changed, the brain needs to recalibrate. Over time, it gets tired.

Multitasking in the Workplace

Many still argue that multitasking is a necessary skill in today’s fast-paced work environment. It’s true that being productive is closely related to how much work is being done. Leaders aim to achieve results and often with competing priorities and tight deadlines, which is why many employees feel the pressure to multitask to handle the load. From that perspective, employers must consider the drawbacks of multitasking, including reduced efficiency and increased errors, when evaluating its suitability for employees. For this reason, it is more important to focus on adaptability, flexibility and time management skills which can all appear as amazing as multitasking yet are easier on the brain.

Strategies for Efficient Task Management

If multitasking cannot be avoided at work, instead of bouncing back and forth and being pulled into too many directions at once, it’s important to pay attention to workload management individually and collectively as a team. Consider these time management skills to improve the way your day flows, remain productive and organized, and efficient in your brain.

  • Chunking Tasks: Dedicate chunks of time to specific tasks that relate to one another rather than attempting to switch between multiple tasks that require different skills or mental functions.
  • Set time limits: one of the cons of multitasking is getting overwhelmed. Set time limits that work for you to keep overwhelm to a minimum. Take a small break after each timer before beginning something new.
  • Prioritization: Take time upfront to make a list of tasks and the order of their importance. Work through the list.
  • Avoiding Distractions: Although the workplace is busy and it is not always possible, minimize distractions, close a door, use earplugs, close apps, etc to maintain focus and concentration on tasks.
  • Stay Hydrated and move: Perhaps not traditionally associated with work or productivity, your brain is a muscle and needs its fuel to continue to function properly. Drink more water. If possible, change positions every 20 minutes.
  • Collective Focus: Encourage teams to focus collectively on one task at a time to enhance productivity and collaboration.
  • Scheduled Blocks: Allocate specific time blocks for different tasks to streamline workflow and minimize task-switching.

While multitasking may seem like a shortcut to productivity, its drawbacks often outweigh its benefits. By adopting a mindful approach to task management and prioritization, individuals and organizations can enhance efficiency and effectiveness. Remember, productivity is not about doing more tasks simultaneously but about doing them effectively and efficiently.