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

Updated: Feb 20, 2023

We live in extremely busy environments with multiple challenges and projects to take care of in a limited time. This makes us feel inclined towards multi-tasking or wanting to execute various tasks at the same time. Some people would even 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 one task is 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 me explain with the help of an example. Suppose I am writing any document while also talking to a friend on the phone for 1 minute. What do I do? I divide that 1 minute into chunks, giving a few seconds to write, then talk, then write again, 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 fractions of seconds and then allocated to either of the tasks.

Most importantly, our brain is not wired to multitask. 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 about 23 mins to bring back your focus to a task that you have put your mind to.

Multitasking also affects the IQ of a person. A study conducted by the University of London discovered that participants who multitasked while performing cognitive activities (like reading or checking work emails) had an IQ score drop similar to those who had stayed up all night. Some of the multitasking men's IQs dropped by 15 points, leaving them with the IQ of an 8-year-old child. So, the next time you are in a meeting and trying to listen to your boss while reading the day's top articles, remember that little information will be stored from either task when all is said and done.

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. It is because of this reason that we find billboards on roads that say ‘don’t be on the phone while 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 an accident by a whopping 400%.

Professor of behavioral neuroscience, Daniel Levitin, at McGill University says that the 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, a 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 in the laundry and waiting for the machine to beep or waiting for your vegetables to get boiled then doing multitasking can help you achieve more in less time. You can either call a person, read a book, or 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 you are being more productive by multitasking, while you are actually doing the opposite. There are many other adverse effects of the same:

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

2. An assignment done while texting will take 2-3 times more and will not turn out well. You will make more mistakes this way.

A common workplace challenge is checking emails every now and then. According to Gloria Mark, Professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, when people are interrupted, it takes them 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to their work, and most people will focus on two interfering tasks before returning to their original activity. This shifting of tasks causes stress to accumulate.

Gloria and her colleague Stephen Voida, in an experiment, studied an office, where they cut off 13 employees from email for five days, strapped heart monitors to their chests, and tracked their computer use. The results showed that employees were less worried after being cut off from emails. They concentrated on one activity for longer periods of time and switched screens less frequently, thereby reducing multitasking and increasing efficiency.

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 one thing during that time. It will not only reduce mistakes, giving you less stress but also make you more productive.

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