• Shagun Agarwal

Multi-tasking vs. Task-switching – What is More Productivity

Updated: Oct 6, 2019

We live in extremely busy environments with multiple challenges and projects to take care of in limited time. This makes us feel inclined towards multi-tasking or wanting to execute multiple tasks at the same time. Some people even would say that they are really good at doing so.

Well! the surprising thing is that there is no such thing as being able to take care of multiple tasks at once. So then what is multitasking all about?

Multi-tasking is the simultaneous execution of 2 or more tasks but that doesn’t imply that more than 1 tasks are executed in one unit of time. In reality it is not multi-tasking, it is task switching. So when you say that you are good at multitasking, that means that you are good at switching being different tasks.

Let us throw light on this with the help of an example. Example, if I am reading a document while also talking to a friend on the phone for 1 minute. What I do is I divide that 1 minute into chunks, giving a few seconds to read then talk then read then talk then read and so on. but in one unit of time, you are either drafting or talking. Here you are switching between the tasks at a fast pace. Even that 1 second gets divided into multiple fraction of seconds and then allocated to either of the tasks.

Most importantly, our brain is not wired to do multi-tasking. What’s really happening is your brain is switching between tasks. Shutting down and restarting every time and this switching is inefficient and exhaustive. Our brain while task switching utilizes oxygenated glucose, depleting the same fuel that is required by us to focus on any particular activity. Research says that it takes 20 mins to bring back your focus to a task that you have put your mind to.

But how effective is this in terms of productivity. Research says that it reduces productivity by 40%. And that is because our brain is not capable of executing multiple tasks in 1 unit in time. And it performs poorly at switching tasks. Its because of this reason that we find billboards on roads which say ‘don’t be on the phone will driving’. If the human mind was so good at multitasking then we would be seeing that on the roads. The statistic is that this increases the probability of accident by a whooping 400%.

Professor of behavioral neuroscience, Daniel Levitin, at McGill University says “That switching comes with a biological cost that ends up making us feel tired much more quickly than if we sustain attention on one thing”. While Hal Pashler, the professor of psychology at UC San Diego says that if you are doing something that doesn’t require constant attention, such as putting your clothes on laundry and waiting for the machine to beep or waiting for your vegetables to get baked then doing multi tasking can help you achieve more in less time. You can either call a person, read a book, watch a video during this time. At the same time, he also adds that if we are attempting to do 2 or more challenging tasks parallelly, we will be decreasing our productivity and energy levels.

You may feel that by doing multitasking you are being more productive, while you are actually doing the opposite.

There are many other adverse effects of the same:

  1. When we force our mind to switch a lot, it actually damages our brain capabilities.

  1. An assignment done while texting will take 2-3 time more and will not turn out well. You are more probable of making mistakes.

Peter Bregman wrote about his experience with multitasking in the Harvard Business Review. While sitting in on a conference call, Bregman decided to not waste any time at all and use that time to email a client. He sent the email. He realized he had forgotten the attachment. He sent another email, with an apology and the proper attachment. And then he had to send a third email explaining why that attachment was the wrong one and apologized while offering the correct attachment. It was at this point he realized that the conference call attendees (specifically, the Chair of the Board) were waiting for him to answer a question. Think you’re awesome at your work because you’re doing two things at once? Nope. You just make yourself look bad in front of others.

So, coming back to the same question: if someone from now on tells you that they are good at multi-tasking say ‘it is task switching and not multi-tasking and that is very ineffective’. Take a chunk of time say 30 mins or whatever and do just 1 thing during that time. It will not only reduce mistakes, giving you less stress but also make you more productive.

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