Multitasking – effective or a myth?

You are finishing off a report, you answer the email that comes in, you send a meeting invite that you forgot to do earlier this morning, you go back to your report – now what was it that you needed to add to the graph?? Does the following scenario sound familiar? You are not alone.

I used to pride myself in being the queen of multitasking! But over the years I realised that multitasking was more of an illusion than a reality and now research has proven this.

What is multitasking?

Multitasking is constantly dividing your attention between a number of unfinished tasks.

Research has shown that the brain doesn't simultaneously process different activities, instead it rapidly switches between the various tasks. A French study showed that activity in the left and right pre-frontal cortex (front area of the brain) works together when we are preforming one task, but switches between left and right when we are performing two tasks. These studies have shown that if we try to engage in multiple activities at once, we are actually performing more slowly and less accurately, resulting in lower levels of productivity. Only tasks that are highly practiced or automatic (like talking on the phone while eating or working while listening to music) can be performed simultaneously.

Why do we feel the need to multitask?

Despite extensive research showing the negative effects of multitasking, many people still see this as a desirable skill, worn as a badge of honour.

My reason for multitasking was to save time as I always packed too much into my day and multitasking was a way to get it ‘all done quicker’. However, this was just a false sense of saving time. Once I started paying attention, bringing a greater focus to each task, I saw how futile, multi-tasking actually was. It was working against me not benefitting me.

 

I also liked the way multitasking made me feel - Super competent – Sense of achievement – Energised – In control!

Being continuously at a heightened sense of alertness as you juggle multiple tasks, keeping your wits about it all, forces your body to continuously operate at a higher level of stress which taxes the sympathetic nervous system leading to adrenal fatigue and other stress-related illnesses. The adrenaline rush may feel great in the short term but in the long term leads to burnout.

 

Mind full or Mindful?

You may feel you have accomplished a lot by multitasking, but it may have come at the price of your relationships, work quality, emotional health or missed opportunities. Multitasking forces you to be constantly switch your thoughts from one thing to the next and back again. This creates a very busy mind which is very hard to switch off.

 

Cultivating mindfulness, paying attention to the present moment brings greater focus to the task.

Your work becomes more efficient, creative and accurate. Practicing mindfulness by simply taking a few deep breaths, being mindful of daily activities such as eating or actually meditating has been shown to change brain function. Mindfulness ‘quietens’ the mind of incessant mind-chatter and brings greater focus and creativity. You feel calmer and less rushed.

My tips for practicing mindfulness to overcome multitasking

A daily mindfulness meditation practice

This gives you a foundation in noticing the present moment, your thoughts, feeling and sensations. With practice, your level of concentration increases and it’s easier to maintain focus on a single task.

 

Mindful breathing

Noticing the natural flow of your breath decreases the mind-chatter.

Try this exercise:

Noticing your breath – wherever you feel it most prominently – maybe at the nostrils, perhaps in the chest or the abdomen.

Breathing in, noticing the full extent of the inhalation from when the air enters your nostrils and passes into your lungs. Getting a sense of your breath – deep in your belly.

Breathing out, slowly as your abdomen lowers – noticing the release of the air from your body.

Just resting the awareness on the breath.

Repeat this 3 to 10 times for a mindful break when you’re super busy.

 

Pause

Pause – take 3 breaths before you answer the phone or react to an email. This brings you into the present moment and enables you to make better choices in your response.

 

Listen

This requires you to shift your energy to the other person and take the focus off you and your mental to-do list, even for a few minutes.

 

Plan your day

Focus on a single task for an allotted amount of time – Plan your day.

Have an open block in your day for the urgent stuff that comes up – finish them and then go back to your plan.

 

Take a break when you are ‘stuck’

When you get ‘stuck’ or ‘lost for words’ – allow some space for creativity to come in – don’t switch to another task. Take a few deep breathes, practice mindful breathing, get up and walk around – I always find making a cup of tea helps. Look around and be present in the moment – Take a break!

 

Turn off distractions

When you are working on a large task over a number of hours/days – allow for breaks to handle incoming calls or emails. Turn off distractions such as email and phones, whenever possible.

 

Resist switching to other tasks

Sometimes the urge to switch to something else is great – Resist – Take a deep breath – Re-focus on the task at hand.

How do you overcome multitasking? Feel free to share your tips in the comments below.

 

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