How Multitasking Is a Myth

If you’ve recently looked for jobs online, then you’ve probably noticed the required employee attributes posted on almost every listing like, “must be a team player,” or “looking for a self-starter.” Then there’s perhaps the greatest fallacy of all: “must be able to multitask.”

Multitasking is often touted as a prized ability of a solid worker, but the irony is that the opposite is true. Our brains are designed for a single input and a single output. Neuroscience suggests that when we multitask, what we’re actually doing is focusing on one thing at a time while switching tasks rapidly. This is a less efficient use of our neural patterns, because every time we switch from one task to the next, we have to remember where we left off, which uses more brain power to recall that information before processing it.

Science Sides With Monotasking
One Stanford researcher studied the effect on multitasking in 3 key areas: memory, filtering out irrelevant information and effectively switching from task to task. According to the Standford Report, among these three, those who “often multitask” performed significantly lower than those who do not multitask in all three areas. This shows that multitasking doesn’t actually work — it just makes us feel like we’ve accomplished more. Instead, we complete things that are irrelevant and non-productive, while still receiving feelings of accomplishment. Another study shows that it takes 25 minutes on average to circle back to completing the same task, and that people at work are interrupted on average every 11 minutes with some form of communication, according to the The New York Times.

I spend my professional hours as a Systems Engineer. I work with large clustered virtual environments in several data centers, and support about 100 hospitals and their IT staff. I fix some of their weirdest and most troublesome problems on a very deep technical level, and having a lot of various tasks is a struggle I’ve had for years. Anyone else with a job has probably had the same struggles. What I’ve found through time is that the best way to increase productivity is through monotasking and effective time management.

This is worth rephrasing and repeating: Monotasking using effective time management will run circles around your multitasking myths. Steven Covey from “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” first gave me this idea. Putting it into action has helped me run circles around other millennials who hadn’t yet learned this. Working a single task from beginning to end is considerably faster than switching all over the place.

A Myth Debunked
The ability to produce more with less in less time is a skill that most employers covet. The knowledge of how to effectively manage your time will enable you (yes, you, dear reader) to excel in ways that your co-workers won’t be able to, because they’re stopping this article halfway through to check Facebook, email and IM their co-workers or friends. The possibility of them finishing this, or any other productivity-oriented article is near zero, because they will undoubtedly be interrupted again.

If you can re-train your brain to avoid distractions, clutter, irrelevant media and cell phone time, you will increase your interpersonal relationships, work harder and generally get more done. Block off some time for your friends and family. Save your emails for later — they can wait. Focus on one task at a time, and resist the urge to switch 10 minutes in — this is barely enough time for you brain to warm up. Doing so could yield a higher salary, better work, more promotions and better leadership training — but at the end of the day, there’s nothing better than an un-cluttered mind.

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