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Multitasking: Yay or Nay?

Ever wonder why we multitask and if it’s even helpful? Let’s think together.

Before I proceed, I want you to pause and take a brief look at the number of tabs you may have open in your browser, or make a mental note of how many thoughts are currently running through your mind. Now you may wonder, ‘Am I multitasking right now? Or do I multitask often?’

I remember being a proud multitasker. It was considered such an important skill. Over time, however, the hype seems to have fizzled out and I think it may be for all the right reasons.

According to its definition, multitasking is the act of performing more than one task at the same time. In theory it sounds doable; I mean we all eat and Netflix at the same time, but science tells us that the human brain operates like a spotlight, focusing only on one thing at a time. That severely limits our ability to multitask, mostly to tasks involving practiced motor skills that have almost become second nature and do not overlap with other complex brain processes.

Except in limited situations, when we think we are multitasking, science tells us what we are mostly doing is actually ‘switching’.

According to Daniel Levitin – American psychologist and neuroscientist – there is a price for shifting our attention from one point of focus to another. He calls it the ‘switching cost’. According to him, an average person would check their email at least once in every 5 minutes but then they would take approximately 64 seconds to continue the previous task. This lag of 320 seconds is the switching cost; it is the time that is wasted. Research also suggests that multitasking has a negative effect on our ability to focus, our performance and sometimes even our ability to retain information.

So, if not for improved performance or efficiency, why do we multitask (or switch) at all?

Multitasking is not all that bad:

For starters, even with our limited ability to multitask, multitasking may actually help us do more in less time. Take, for example, reading the newspaper or responding to emails while sipping on your morning coffee - a ritual followed by many. It may take away from the joy of tasting every sip we take, but it does get the job done.

It is a competitive world and time is money. Technology seems to be a great contributor to this constant sense of urgency. A story disappears after 24-hours and a post often only has 24-hours to maximize its reach. It is a race against time and, more often than not, those who can get more done by the end of the day are considered more efficient or successful and will probably go home with a higher sense of accomplishment than someone who spent more time perfecting one focused job.

The global shift to working from home has also started to eat up space from people’s personal lives as home and office boundaries are blurred. Employees are finding themselves working for longer than eight hours and the expectation, and the practice of, doing work beyond office hours has also become more common. A professor of law at the International Islamic University, Samina, mentioned how the deadlines to process scores on assignments and exams have become shorter than ever before. At times, she finds no other option than to prepare for a lecture and respond to students’ queries while cooking for the family. ‘If I don’t do that, my personal life will be completely sabotaged,’ she mentioned.

As I thought more about multitasking and its pros and cons, I also spoke to another acquaintance to gather views on the topic. A mother of three and a student at a Swedish university, Wajiha may come off as superhuman: ‘Oh, you can always find me researching for an assignment while preparing a snack for my little one, or breastfeeding him while taking an online class. I sometimes do the dishes while trying to also assist my children with their homework,’ she explained.

And I feel a lot of us engage in similar multitasking throughout the day. So, our ability to multitask may be limited but it sure is something we seem to be unable to completely write off.

Monotasking is no longer the cool thing to do

Even after multitasking has lost the glamor from a decade ago, monotasking is still perceived as a concept from the ancient past. Social media has connected us with friends, family, acquaintances, and even strangers who don’t seem like strangers anymore. And the growing trend of “influencers” and the do-it-all “bloggers” who seem to be juggling so much and enjoying is definitely also influencing our expectations with how much we personally wish to handle at a time. So if compared to monotasking, in view of how fast people are evolving around us, multitasking remains the ‘cooler’ thing to do.

With all that we see on social media and the constant bombardment of things new, shiny, and happening, we want to do more in less time. Equally valued today is the need to flaunt our ‘busy-ness’ - to be constantly on the run. Perhaps it makes us feel important and validated too.

There is perceived efficiency in monotasking

While this blog was brewing in my head, I came across Huzaifa - a friend who has recently taken over his family’s construction business in Pakistan. In my conversation with him, he shared that he’s definitely pro-multitasking and sold on its benefits. He claims to review bills, sign reports, answer phone calls, and sometimes even have his lunch simultaneously. “It just saves time”, he said, implying his complete buy-in into multitasking allowing him to achieve more in less time and allowing him, therefore, to find time for leisurely activities such as visiting the gym or scoring a game of badminton in the evening.

And it seems, he’s not the only one. Regardless of what research suggests, the belief that multitasking gets more things done in less time is common and prevails amongst individuals from different professions even if the motivation differs. In the case of Huzaifa, the drive is to find time to enjoy personal activities while for Sameena, it is more about fulfilling work and home responsibilities whilst also being approachable for her students. As for me, it lets me catch-up with my friends over quick phone-calls during lunch break.

It gives us that adrenaline rush we seek:

Social media has enslaves us into flaunting our busy-ness and we’ve established that monotasking is a concept from the farther past. Hence, doing one thing at a time is neither the norm, nor acceptable. You’ll find people juggling multiple jobs and side projects, while also trying to travel more and focus on mental health, and check off things on an extensive bucket list. And it may sound like a blanket statement but for a lot of us it’s all about fitting into the new normal. It feels exciting. This sense of urgency gives us the adrenaline rush we seek. Constantly switching between sending emails, answering phone calls, messaging a friend, scrolling through our newsfeeds and also getting some work done - it just makes us feel good. And maybe that’s the new way of life?

Attention spans are diminishing:

How far could you read through this article without picking up your phone to check your notifications, or getting up to grab a snack? Research tells us that our attention span is shrinking each day. So if a visual had about 10 seconds yesterday to grab and maintain our attention, chances are the time has declined to 8 seconds today. We just can’t focus on one thing for too long. At the same time, imagine yourself at monotasking.

Apart from the dullness, this is certainly not what the corporate world expects of you. It expects us to not only do our job, but enjoy doing it, and also thrive at it. So, sometimes it is enticing for our brain to have multiple work tabs open (for real or in our mind) and to have the liberty to pick and choose how and what we want to focus on, at a given time. There is definitely a charm to thinking through various tasks at a time and also acing each one of them. In this way, multitasking can give us a sense of control, and also a self-created challenge to keep the mind functioning efficiently.

So, what’s the verdict?

Multitasking, in real-time, is possible only in a limited capacity as we can’t physically be doing many things at a time. However, the practice still prevails and we each have our own idea about it. For some, it may be about having their morning coffee whilst checking their emails, and some might take care of cooking in the kitchen whilst attending a meeting via Zoom.

Whether we’re really multitasking or just switching between thoughts and tasks, juggling multiple things at the same time is here to stay. And, knowingly or unknowingly, we are also paying a price in terms of the ‘switching cost’. What we also be losing out on is the simpler joys of life: living in the moment, being dedicated to the present task, and practicing focus. But there is a perceived sense of accomplishment we derive from thinking we are getting more done in less time. This satisfaction seems to trump everything else and may also be the need of the time for us.

So to speak, as human beings capable of multitude potential, we can each pick and choose if and when multitasking does really work for us. And maybe, we can be a little bit more mindful of the price we’re paying for it and whether the cost is always worth it or only sometimes. Once in a while, it maybe more satisfying to switch off focus from multiple tasks, and focus on one instead



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