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There’s an old joke about scientists discovering something that could do the work of two men. One woman. J

The implication was that women are better at doing two or more things at once than men, now referred to as ‘multitasking’, and there is some science to back this up. Even so, and regardless of gender, there’s also plenty of evidence that multitasking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The downside

We don’t need to look too far to see why we multitask. If it isn’t our gadgets that are constantly crying out for our attention, it’s the boss or colleagues, clients, customers and kids. But every time our attention is drawn to a new email, message or phone call, there’s a switching cost. The upshot is that multitasking reduces productivity.

Perhaps you’re different – a gifted multitasker? Sorry. Research has shown that people who multitask a lot and who feel it boosts their performance are actually worse at multitasking. They are slower to switch between tasks and have more trouble organising their thoughts than people who prefer to focus on one thing at a time.

If that’s not bad enough, there are even suggestions that multitasking can lower your IQ as well as your emotional intelligence. Bear in mind though, many of these conclusions are based on laboratory studies with contrived tasks. They may not always reflect the real world.

The upside

We all need to multitask to some extent, whether it involves frequently switching between tasks or doing two things at once.

Listening to a podcast while driving is an efficient use of time. Call centre workers and receptionists have no choice but to constantly switch from one task to another. For our ancestors, hunting for a daily meal while not being eaten by lions was essential to survival. And even if it does reduce your productivity, being seen to be a good multitasker may pay dividends at work (just don’t mention the pesky science to your boss).

The antidote

Like everything in life, multitasking needs to be undertaken with a degree of balance. With so many demands on our attention, one of the biggest problems is that we often aren’t even aware that we are multitasking. But if you automatically reach for your phone every time it pings you need to develop some healthier habits.

When you have a task to complete that requires concentration find a way to block distractions and interruptions. Some offices have quiet times and spaces for this purpose. Listening to music can help concentration. Wear big headphones and you’ll also deter interruption.

Learn to differentiate between what’s urgent and important, urgent but not important, important but not urgent, and neither urgent nor important. Your priorities will then be much clearer.

Relish ‘flow’. This is the state of absorbed concentration when you are truly at your most productive and time passes unnoticed. And if you are having an important conversation, turn off your phone or set it to silent, and give the other person 100% of your attention.

If you’re not sure if you’re a good multitasker or not, what else did you do while reading this short article?!



American Psychological Association – Multitasking: Switching costs: