Multitasking vs monotasking: a common workplace dilemma

Monday, January 23, 2017


Fragmented attention, a constant sense of urgency and repeated checks on a seemingly endless to-do list are commonplace at work these days. We are constantly being pulled in multiple directions. We use our cell phones when we drive, check e-mails during meetings, and eat lunch while scrolling through our news feeds. With increased information sources and ever increasing choices, it is no surprise that multitasking has become second nature to us. It is almost unavoidable. And most often, technology is to blame.


But if multitasking is as damaging for us as neuroscientists have come to believe or as counter-productive as managers now speculate, why do we keep going back to it?


I see three primary reasons:


Monotasking is boring

The thought of mono-tasking makes me think of a production line from the industrial era with people continuously doing repetitive tasks like cogs in a machine. No way do I want to imagine myself being in that position. Besides, that routine is very atypical of what is expected of entrepreneurs, managers and employees in the corporate world.


Multitasking ‘feels’ more productive

Multi-tasking presents itself as a solution to our continual lack of time and has for long been valued by employers. From a managerial and administrative point of view, the notion is highly appealing. It also makes one feel as if they are getting more work done. It is satisfying.


Our brains have rewired for multitasking

I certainly remember a time before the immense technological distraction of today, but for the upcoming generations, this is how the world is. Technology and multiple information streams are no longer a distraction – they are the usual way of life. To expect them to ‘not be distracted by technology’ would be no less than cruel.


Technology has changed the way we live our lives, do our work and learn things. It has also rewired our brains so that we are now more easily distracted and find it harder to pay attention to a single task for a longer period of time.


Why is multitasking a problem if we are so hardwired to it?

I find it pretty unnecessary to list down the problems associated with multitasking. Surprisingly, Google does a great job at helping you find reasons not to multitask. But for the sake of completion, however, and very briefly, studies suggest that multitasking is counter-productive and brain damaging. The damage includes harm to the part of the brain that allows us to focus and pay attention, reduced brain density in areas that control empathy, and disrupted short-term memory.


If you want to go into the details of these effects, watch the TedxStanford talk: Are you multitasking your life away [Watch from after 8:00 minutes in the video], by late Clifford Nass, human-computer communication expert at Stanford University. He explains in detail how multitasking affects the brain. You can also read this article on Business Insider which also quotes Nass on ‘How multitasking reshapes the brain’.


Solution: Become an intelligent multitasker


To me, multitasking and monotasking are primarily two extremes of the same spectrum. The spectrum identifies how many tasks or activities have to share your mental and physical resources at one time and how quickly we switch between tasks.


Where on this spectrum we find ourselves performing best will be determined by the kind of tasks we are performing, how familiar you are with the tasks and how often you do them, and whether they require unrelated mental and physical resources or not.


Having said that, multitasking, like monotasking, is a tool. You can use it for better or worse. It is time to adapt to the changing requirements of the workplace and understand the difference between productive, ‘mindful’ multitasking and habitual distraction, rather than try to give up multitasking altogether.


Here are a few tips to adopt mindful multitasking:


  1. Eliminate distractions

    Anything you are doing to avoid or escape from the actual task at hand is a distraction [and a sign of procrastination], not multitasking. Checking your e-mail every two minutes in the middle of a task, for example.

    Turn off unnecessary notifications, shut down extra browser tabs, and go offline on instant chat messengers.

  2. When pressed on time, choose tasks wisely

    To do two things simultaneously, choose tasks that do not require the same physical and mental resources. For example, speaking over the phone and folding your laundry can be done with no difficulty. Compare this to folding a shirt and a pant at the same time, or talking over the phone and trying to transcribe a video. Not a great idea and probably not possible.

  3. Combine related tasks

    Switching between tasks can