21st Century Alchemy: Multitasking – The reality

21st Century Alchemy is a weekly Q&A column for career-minded professionals, entrepreneurs and small businesses written by David Parkins, a business (re)development specialist, company culture strategist, career coach, and IMCSA speaker (ep3.dk).

In this high-tech, high-pressure, information-at-your-fingertips era that we live in, it’s not uncommon to juggle listening to music, checking emails and carrying out social media updates, talking on the phone, and using the computer.

In fact, it’s become such a necessity that “How well do you multitask?” is a fairly standard interview question. We simply have too much to do in too little time, but is this approach working for us? Scientists say no.

Wired due to poor wiring
According to research published more than a decade ago, splitting our attention between tasks (multitasking) is something we simply don’t have the capacity to do well. A research team led by Dr David Meyer found that multitasking not only makes you perform each task less efficiently and effectively, it stresses you out and can potentially damage the brain over time.

Chronically stressing the brain triggers a fight, flight or freeze response that inhibits memory, reduces concentration, and impairs decision-making and learning. Chronic stress can also lead to depression, anxiety disorders, heart disease, infertility and suppressed immune response. So even though it may seem that working on several tasks simultaneously is the height of efficiency, it would only be true if we had more than one brain (think dual processors in a computer).

A more recent 2012 study on emailing confirmed their results. They found that emailers switched windows (tasks) twice as much as those who didn’t and remained on a steady high alert state based on their heart rates. In fact, it took more than five days to return to a resting heart rate after being cut off from email. On the other hand, those who had no email access felt they did their jobs better and stayed on task. They also had fewer stressful and time-wasting interruptions.

Multitasking: The test
For the next week, spend a few days actively observing your multitasking behaviour: 1) What do you do?; 2) What justifications do you use to support the action?; 3) How do you feel when you’re doing it?; 4) How do you feel afterwards?; and 5) Rate the quality and capacity of your performance.

For example, did you listen particularly well, did you understand or were you able to process whatever at a deeper level, or were you able to clearly recall what you were doing and why?

Then ask the same questions while you’re doing one task at a time. Afterwards, compare and contrast the experiences. What did you learn from them?