Multi-tasking – it's not all it’s cracked up to be

Multi-tasking – it's not all it’s cracked up to be

by Tessa Wang 01 Feb 2020

For the longest time, people who multi-task are lauded as being good workers. Even when we are not at work, multi-tasking exists in the most common ways. Look at what you are doing at this very moment, are you reading our article while waiting for your email to load in another tab on your laptop? Is it a common practice for you to be watching the latest drama or swiping your smart phone while having breakfast, lunch and dinner? 


A different school of thought has been producing studies that show that multi-tasking could be no more than merely distraction, and this may be compromising your ability to focus and succeed. It also means you could have "attention residue".


The term was originally coined in 2009 by Sophie Leroy, a business professor at the University of Minnesota. She found that the higher up the chain we go, the more likely we are to work on multiple projects at once. Unfortunately, people experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poorer performance on the next task.


Here is the reality associated with multi-tasking:


  • Multitasking is really just task-switching, according to Guy Winch, PhD, author of Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries. Our brains function with a finite amount, and multi-tasking essentially wastes productivity as our attention is expended on switching gears.
  • Your work quality and efficiency are affected, because multi-tasking makes it more difficult to organise thoughts and filter out irrelevant information.
  • Your IQ level drops, according to a study at the University Of London that showed subjects who multi-tasked while performing cognitive tasks experienced significant IQ drops. This drop was even similar to what individuals who lose a night of sleep encounter.
  • Multi-tasking increases production of cortisol, the stress hormone, and leaves us feeling mentally exhausted.
  • Multi-tasking may not necessarily save us time. If you think about it, it may even take you longer to finish two projects when you are switching back and forth, than it would to finish each task separately.
  • It may cause you to make mistakes in what you are working on, especially if one or more of your activities involves a lot of critical thinking.
  • New research now suggests the possibility of permanent cognitive damage associated with multi-tasking. A study from the University of Sussex (UK) ran MRI scans on individuals who spent time on multiple devices at once (for example, texting while watching TV). The MRI scans showed that subjects who multi-tasked more often had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, the area responsible for empathy and emotional control.

In this age when we may not have the luxury of working on one task at a time, the prospect of not having to work extra hours is surely a benefit of multi-tasking. The challenge is then how to maintain the quality of work. Apparently, to achieve this, we need to work with greater intensity of focus while multi-tasking. This boils down to the fundamental that full concentration on a single task, free from distraction, allows us to produce at our optimal level.


To sustain your momentum without burning out from an accelerated mental load, try taking short five-minute rests to reset.

Coined by performance researcher and consultant, Adam Fraser, entering a “third space” to reset can make all the difference. This technique requires us to reflect on what we have just done, then rest, helping us to decompress within minutes. This can even take place in between meetings you are rushing to, or when you are taking a loo or water break. First, reflect on what you've just done. Then rest. Finally, you reset – developing awareness of your current behaviour and focus on your desired behaviour in the next space.


Another obvious problem is excessive email checking. (Admit it, how many of us feel a thrill from receiving new emails in our inbox?) Having smart phones accentuates this, and adding to that, messaging has become another ill. While checking messages constantly may be hard to restrain, try establishing an email checking timeslot. Keep your email-checking to say, three times a day – like the start of a workday, after lunch and at the end of your work day.


Perhaps, here is one of the greatest reasons why you should manage your inclination to multi-task excessively. People who are busy doing two or more things at the same time miss out on seeing things right in front of them. On a practical level, how many times have we almost walked into someone approaching, while we are focusing on our smart phone, with the other party also likely to be heads-down? This is also a hazard when we are crossing a road. 


Additionally, multi-tasking caused by technology is, not surprisingly, causing us to communicate much less face to face. Even within the same space, such as a family or social gathering, everyone could be eyeing their phones while trying to participate in or pay attention to a conversation. Probably a good time to decide to pay more attention to the people and surroundings around you!