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I find it difficult to do several things at the same time. I see other people having a conversation with somebody while writing an email to somebody else, seemingly effortlessly. I also see people attending a meeting and working on their laptop simultaneously, which has become the order of the day. When entering the conference room, the WIFI code is visibly displayed for all to see and to enable all participants of the workshop to do other things then what they came for in the first place, i.e. attending the workshop. How do people do this? When asked they proudly answer that they are “multi-taskers”. I used to be impressed by this until a good friend of mine said that multi-tasking is an excuse for not being able to focus! Reason for me to look a bit more into the myth of multi-tasking. Multitasking is the apparent ability to perform more than one task, or activity, over a short period of time. Multitasking can result in time wasted due to context switching and apparently causing more errors due to insufficient attention. Studies have shown that it is impossible to focus on more than one task at a time. However, if one is proficient at one of the tasks at hand, then it is possible to do these tasks. You see, we all do it. Texting while walking, sending emails during meetings, chatting on the phone while cooking dinner. Today, doing just one thing at a time seems downright luxurious, even wasteful.But chances are that at the end of the day you have not been as effective as you could have been. Research shows that it’s not nearly as efficient as we like to believe, and can even be harmful to our health. What we call multi-tasking is really task-switching, says Guy Winch, PhD, author of Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries. “When it comes to attention and productivity, our brains have a finite amount,” he says.“It’s like a pie chart, and whatever we’re working on is going to take up the majority of that pie. There’s not a lot left over for other things, with the exception of automatic behaviors like walking or chewing gum.” Moving back and forth between several tasks actually wastes productivity, he says, because your attention is expended on the act of switching gears—plus, you never get fully “in the zone” for either activity. Multi-tasking is also slowing you down. In fact, it will probably take you longer to finish two projects when you’re jumping back and forth than it would to finish each one separately. The same is true even for behaviors as seemingly automatic as driving: In a 2008 University of Utah study, drivers took longer to reach their destinations when they chatted on cell phones. “What tends to save the most time is to do things in batches,” says Winch. “Pay your bills all at once, then send your emails all at once. Each task requires a specific mindset, and once you get in a groove you should stay there and finish.”Other negative effects of multi-tasking include making mistakes. Experts estimate that switching between tasks can cause a 40% loss in productivity. It can also cause you to introduce errors into whatever you’re working on, especially if one or more of your activities involves a lot of critical thinking.A 2010 French study found that the human brain can handle two complicated tasks without too much trouble, because it has two lobes that can divide responsibility equally between the two. Add a third task, however, and it can overwhelm the frontal cortex and increase the number of mistakes you make.
Multi-tasking also causes stress. When University of California Irvine researchers measured the heart rates of employees with and without constant access to office email, they found that those who received a steady stream of messages stayed in a perpetual “high alert” mode with higher heart rates. Those without constant email access did less multitasking and were less stressed because of it.And it’s not only the physical act of multitasking that causes stress; it’s the consequences, as well, says Winch. There are more negative effects when you tend to different tasks at the same time but one that strikes me more is the fact that it may damage relationships. “This is an area where I think multitasking has a much bigger effect than most people realize,” says Winch. “A couple is having a serious talk and the wife says ‘Oh, let me just check this message.’ Then the husband gets mad, and then he decides to check his messages, and communication just shuts down.”One recent study from the University of Essex even shows that just having a cell phone nearby during personal conversations—even if neither of you are using it—can cause friction and trust issues. “Do your relationship a favor and pay your partner some exclusive attention for 10 minutes,” says Winch. “It can make a big difference.”So yes, you, you may think you’re a master multi-tasker, but, according to a 2013 University of Utah study, that probably means you’re actually among the worst.The research focused specifically on cell phone use behind the wheel, and it found that people who scored highest on multitasking tests do not frequently engage in simultaneous driving and cell-phone use—probably because they can better focus on one thing at a time. Those who do talk and drive regularly, however, scored worse on the tests, even though most described themselves as having above average multitasking skills.Mind you, multi-tasking can be dangerous. Texting or talking on a cell phone, is as dangerous as driving drunk. Research also shows that people who use mobile devices while walking are less likely to look before stepping into a crosswalk. And in one study, one in five teenagers who went to the emergency room after being hit by a car admitted they were using a smartphone at the time of the accident.