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The Pros and Cons of Multitasking

05 Jul 2022

Multitasking is something we’ve all done. The question is whether it’s actually any good for our productivity? Read this article to find out the benefits and downsides of multitasking.

Whether you like it or not, we all multitask. The extent of our multitasking, the ways we do it, and the particular tasks we undertake may differ, but almost all of us partake in it at one point or another. 

If nothing else, the pandemic taught many of us a thing or two about how to straddle several tasks and responsibilities at the same time. This was particularly the case for women on whose shoulders most of the extra workload primarily fell.

There is another way in which multitasking is a great topic for the 21st century – everyone seems to have a strong opinion on it. Some see it as a great way to boost productivity and efficiency. Others dismiss it as a stress-inducing path to poor quality and misunderstandings. So which one is it?

As with all things in life – when it comes to advantages and disadvantages of multitasking the answer resists simplicity. In this blog post I’ll try to do my best to give multitasking a fair assessment. 

The Drawbacks of Multitasking

Since I like to end with a glimmer of hope, let’s begin with the drawbacks (of which there are plenty). Here is a simple rundown of just the main downsides to multitasking:

Multitasking seriously affects your concentration

The more tasks you have on your plate, the less your brain is able to concentrate on any one of them at a time, not to mention pay attention to what is going on around you. This leads to an inability to properly connect to people (customers, colleagues, friends, family) which is not good both for your professional and private lives.

Mistake upon mistake

  • One logical consequence of reduced ability to concentrate is more mistakes. Studies confirm that the more complex tasks we take on, the less efficiently our brains function. While the initial intention of hitting two birds with one stone may seem tempting, in reality you may end up losing more time doing the two tasks just by correcting the initial mistakes. What’s worse is that you end up leaving a bad impression on your boss, teacher, or client – never a great idea.

Memory glitches

  • Multitasking negatively affects the short-term memory of both young and older adults (although the effect on the latter is more pronounced). Short-term or working memory basically is our ability to retain and use information for a short period of time. This includes everything from remembering the name of a recent acquaintance to more complex activities such as reasoning, comprehension, and learning.

“Now we are stressed out”

Just like in the Twenty One Pilots song, all that multitasking makes people more stressed out and anxious. First, the disrupting and task-switching effect of multitasking can make you sadder and more fearful. Second, multitasking values quantity over quality. We do more to get a quick dopamine boost, but in the long run when our brains understand the quantity-quality tradeoff, we are left depressed and unfulfilled.

It’s just awfully time-consuming

When it comes to intellectually engaging activities, there is almost never such a thing as genuine multitasking. People just quickly switch from one task to another. Unfortunately, our brains don’t work that way. The more complex the task is, the more time consuming it is to fully commit to it. After all, it takes about 25 minutes to regain full focus on a topic after being distracted. Imagine jumping between two major tasks constantly – simply getting back in the zone will eat up all your time.

With all this in mind, the case for multitasking seems like an impossibility. However, there is a way all of us can make it work, albeit in a limited way.

The Benefits of Multitasking

I won’t deny it. When multitasking works the feeling can be pretty ecstatic. It is easy to see yourself as the apex predator of the capitalist world when you manage to participate in a meeting, write a flawless report, and help your kid with his/her school assignment all at the same time. 

Now, given what we already know, this is not a realistic representation of how multitasking usually works. But there are productivity, efficiency, and even financial gains multitasking can unlock. It’s just not a question about how to multitask, but what to multitask.

There’s no denying it – unless you are real life Will Hunting, doing two intellectually engaging tasks (or any detail oriented task for that matter) at the same time is likely to lead to worse performance. As I outlined before, our brains are just not cut out for that. The key is to find the right combination of tasks that can be multitasked. 

Here is my simple formula: 

1. a passive intellectual activity (conference, meeting, lecture) OR entertainment (movie, series, podcast)

                                                                     +

2. menial, repetitive tasks (cleaning, preparing food, gardening) OR physical activities (workouts, walking).

How does this kind of multitasking play out?

One of the great things about remote working is that it allows us to make use of those largely unproductive hours that are spent in daily meetings. Plenty of people used to be stuck in them for hours each week, mostly as passive listeners not active contributors.

Remote work and multitasking allows you to take advantage of all that meeting time. Of course, you have to follow what is happening to keep yourself up to date with the goings-on in your organization or team. However, it doesn’t limit you to using that listening time to prepare a meal, declutter the room, or take the dog for a walk. 

The same is true for some of that rest time. I don’t advocate working during rest time, but sometimes there are activities that can easily be done while watching your favorite TV show. Remember your mom knitting or ironing clothes while watching the evening news? That’s multitasking done right. For example, I use my movie watching time either to update my budget (registering money flows) or simply peel potatoes for the next day’s lunch.

The same goes with staying in shape. A successful multitasker will know to keep that 90 minute podcast episode for his long Saturday run. The same is true for meetings or lectures – listen while taking the dog for a walk or going for a run. You have headphones and mobile internet – why not make that time count and boost your productivity?

Why do it?

Now some of you will say – “this sounds awfully exhausting” or “I’ll be tired out of my mind”. But that’s really not the case if you give it a try. Trust me – you will feel far better than if you were simply doing nothing during these passive intellectual activities. Instead of aimlessly sitting in a dragged out meeting you end up feeling more accomplished.

Furthermore, while initially it all may seem like a lot, you’ll end up having a lot more time for the most important thing in your life – relationships. Maximizing your productivity during those passive meeting hours by doing chores around the house, will free up time after work that can be used to meet friends or play with kids.

Finally, while it may be hard to grasp the financial incentive to multitasking, this approach could probably save you hundreds of dollars a month. Just think about it – the more menial tasks you do yourself, the less time and money you have to spend on them later. For example, if you reduce the number of times your family eats out to once a week (instead of twice), it saves you well over $100 a month. The more you clean yourself, the less you have to hire extra work hands to do that and so on. Trust me – all these small things add up to a pretty sizable sum.

The Takeaway

Don’t multitask two serious, intellectually engaging, and detail oriented tasks as it will only backfire. You’ll make more mistakes, leave a bad impression, negatively affect your mental health and wellbeing without saving any time.

However, if you can manage to combine a passive intellectual activity (meeting, seminar, lecture, movie) with a menial task or household chore that only requires mechanical actions and has to be done anyway – go for it! It may save you both time and money!

Author: Lote Steina

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Life doesen't have a do-over.
Commit to it! BePrime!
Life doesen't have a do-over.
Commit to it! BePrime!