Are there any benefits to multitasking? We asked a business coach
In late 2018, I attended a workshop on productivity that completely changed the way I work. The core lesson was simple: productivity is a function of energy, and that all of our efforts to optimise our output should focus first and foremost on preserving it.
Multitasking, I learned, is something that detracts from our energy, because rapidly switching between two tasks is mentally exhausting. We aren’t really doing multiple things simultaneously; we’re switching back-and-forth between them.
It also prevents us from really focusing on one task, and so going into a ‘flow state’, where we’re fully immersed in what we’re doing and are energised by this focus. The result? Poorer performance on tasks we’re switching between and the likelihood of feeling wiped out. Most expert thinking on multitasking echoes this: it makes us slower and and less accurate, so it’s best not to do it.
But the modern workplace is nothing if not complex, and in some instances, multitasking can actually be beneficial for productivity and performance.
Variety can boost creativity
Switching between different tasks can add variety into our day, stimulating different parts of our mind and so encouraging happiness and creativity, says business coach and productivity expert Erica Wolfe-Murray. This is especially true if you enjoy each of the different tasks.
“Multitasking can be really helpful when you love all the elements you are engaged with,” she says. “This makes you access different parts of your mind, adding creative impetus and introducing new perspectives that feed other aspects of your work.”
Happiness was tied to feelings of productivity, and reduced when circumstances limited someone’s sense of accomplishment
A 2015 study echoed this, but only when people switched between different tasks over longer periods of time — over a day, a week, or a month. Over shorter periods of time, for example, 10 minutes or an hour, switching between varied tasks made people less happy. Here, happiness was tied to feelings of productivity, and reduced when circumstances limited someone’s sense of accomplishment.
Practice can boost performance
The more we multitask, the better we become at it, which can cushion the negative effects switching between tasks can have on performance. The key to this more productive multitasking is how quickly and efficiently our brain is able to move from one task to the next.
“What researchers measure is how fast your brain can manage to switch between tasks — landing on the new task, focusing, doing the task, and then moving swiftly to the next one as it demands our attention,” says Erica. “It is rather like other skills: if you do it a lot, you become practised at it, which improves how your brain handles it.”
Success in today’s workplace increasingly requires agility: understanding when it’s time to put your head down and focus on one task, and being able to be flexible when multiple things require your attention at once
In a famous experiment, Brown University researchers Joo-Hyun Song and Patrick Bédard had one set of participants complete two sessions where they were required to do two things at once (multitask), while another group first had a session with only one task before the multitasking session. Those in the first group performed better in the second multitasking session, even when the second session included completely new tasks.
Sometimes, it’s the skill you need
We don’t always have a choice whether we want to multitask or not. Those who are in more senior positions within a company will often need to juggle multiple tasks and shift their attention quickly while maintaining focus. Many sectors rely on workers’ ability to do this: think journalists and PRs responding to a constant news cycle, traders buying and selling at a moments’ notice, or teachers dealing with a classroom full of six-year-olds.
Being able to switch our focus to deal with incoming tasks can also be essential for good workplace communication, especially if something needs to be dealt with quickly.
Success in today’s workplace increasingly requires agility: understanding when it’s time to put your head down and focus on one task, and being able to be flexible when multiple things require your attention at once, explains Erica:
“Ring-fence that time to do your ‘head down’, hard-thinking work as you will be way more productive. Then outside of this time, you can go back to the short-term responsive way of working that is what we all understand to be ‘multitasking’.”
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