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Multitasking Isn’t Always as Bad as Everyone Says… But It Can Increase Your Stress

Multitasking Isn't Always as Bad as Everyone Says... But It Can Increase Your Stress

Multitasking is not a new concept in the workplace and much research has been done on the topic for decades. Some people are proponents of it, digging for solutions on how to optimize your multitasking to get more done. Others hate the practice and there are plenty of studies proving that it harms your productivity. One thing all sides agree on is that multitasking can increase your stress levels and you need to keep that in check.

What Is Multitasking?

Taking a step back, for the purposes of this post, multitasking comes in two forms. First, there’s the practice of doing multiple items at once. For example, checking emails and writing code while on mute during a conference call.

The other, slightly harder-to-define, form of multitasking is alternating between tasks, without finishing one first. This is also the more common type of multitasking that is a reality for nearly all office workers. Many of us are checking email every 15-30 minutes while bouncing back and forth between projects.

How Multitasking is Stressing You Out

We won’t get into the debate of whether or not you should multitask. As already noted, for some, it’s nearly impossible to eliminate it all together. It is important, however, to recognize that you need to manage it to reduce your stress and better serve your clients.

We first need to understand what the brain is doing when we multitask. Studies have shown that although we believe we’re thinking about many items at once, the brain is more similar to your web browser, going back and forth between different tabs. It can only focus on one tab at once. Each time you go to a different task, it must use energy to open the other one and reprocess what’s happening. Too much of this can cause burnout and even lead to anxiety.

If we agree that multitasking harms productivity, then we can understand how it causes more stress because you start missing deliverables, submit bad work and it can all snowball into more negativity. In addition, the result of switching between projects can deteriorate your focus and, in turn, your ability to retain information.

On the other hand, if we subscribe to the belief that multitasking has benefits and improves productivity, studies continue to show that stress is inevitable. Interestingly, one study found that even when multitasking makes you more productive, you’re still likely to feel as though you weren’t productive which, you guessed it, leads to stress! Being a master multitasker also creates habits of needing to check-in. This causes stress when you find yourself in situations where you suddenly can’t regularly check emails or work on multiple items.

Taking the Stress Out of Multitasking

Certainly, if multitasking isn’t for you, the best solution is to eliminate it. Monotasking takes more discipline, but as noted a couple times already, many productivity experts swear by it. They say it allows you to be present in the moment and complete tasks faster.

To make it more of a reality in your job, you can monotask by creating sub-tasks and mini-goals. For example, rather than saying, “I’m going to focus on writing my resume and will not do anything else until it’s done”, you would say “For the next hour I’m going to focus on writing a summary of my Project Management experience in the Oil and Gas sector.”

If you want to continue multitasking, that’s great too. Here are a few quick tips that will help you get to where you want to be, and reduce your stress:

  • Use the right tools. There are plenty of apps to help you out with this and the most basic tool is a pen and paper. Write to-do lists and take notes on where you’re at with each task before switching. This prevents you from using energy when picking up where you left off.
  • Limit distractions. Multitasking is fine, but sometimes it’s toxic. Turn off your notifications so you control when you check email, not the other way around.
  • Know what requires your full attention. Sometimes you cannot multitask. Especially with more complex items or in subjects you’re still new and need all your brain power. Turn off the music, close out your email, and save all other projects for another day.
  • Practice! Like everything, practice makes perfect and multitasking is no different. Set your own routines and processes until you find a system that works for you.

The High Cost of Multitasking: 40% of Productivity Lost by Task Switching

This article originally appeared on the Wrike Outcollaborate Blog on September 24, 2015. It was written by Andrea Fryrear, content marketing for MarketerGizmo.

The High Cost of MultitaskingThe temptation to multitask is ever present in a modern office, whether that office is at a kitchen table or in a massive collection of cubicles. From email and chat notifications to the siren song of social media, there’s always somewhere else our mind could wander.

The problem is that when we jump from task to task, we aren’t really getting more done. We’re forcing our brains to constantly switch gears, working harder to do things at a lower level of quality, and exhausting our mental reserves.

We multitask in a lot of ways, but regardless of the form, the costs are high. It’s unrealistic for most of us to eradicate the multitasking monster altogether, but with a better understanding of how it impacts our productivity (and which personality types are most vulnerable) we can mitigate the negative effects.

3 Types of Multitasking

Texting and driving is a multitasking situation that gets a lot of media attention, but this kind of double-duty attention split is just one way that we try to force our brains in multiple directions at once.

According to the American Psychological Association’s overview of multitasking research, there are threetypes of multitasking(1):

  1. Performing two tasks simultaneously.This includes talking on the phone while driving or answering email during a webinar.
  2. Switching from one task to another without completing the first task.We’ve all been right in the middle of focused work when an urgent task demands our attention; this is one of the most frustrating kinds of multitasking, and often the hardest to avoid.
  3. Performing two or more tasks in rapid succession.It almost doesn’t seem like multitasking at all, but our minds need time to change gears in order to work efficiently.

To be clear, none of these is necessarily worse than the others; all three reduce our effectiveness and result in mental fatigue. Be on guard for all three types of multitasking so you can regain control of your focus.

The Myth of Multitasking Ability

It’s estimated that only 2% of the population is actually proficient at multitasking, and ironically, these people are the least likely to actually multitask. The problem is that we all think we’re part of that 2%, and use our perceived ability as justification to juggle too many tasks. In fact, recent research indicates that people who multitask the most often are likely the worst at it.(2)

David Sanbonmatsu, David Strayer, Nathan Medeiros-Ward and Jason Watson of the University of Utah’s Department of Psychology dive deep into this problem in their study on multitasking:

“Perceptions of the ability to multi-task were found to be badly inflated; in fact, the majority of participants judged themselves to be above average in the ability to multi-task. These estimations had little grounding in reality as perceived multi-tasking ability was not significantly correlated with actual multi-tasking ability.”

Don’t assume that you’re part of the 2% can multitask, and focus on excelling at one task at a time.

Why Bother Single-Tasking?

Jumping from task to task doesn’t seem like it takes very long when we’re in the moment, but these tiny time-wasters add up quickly.

According to the American Psychological Association:

“[A]lthough switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error. Meyer has said that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.

Wouldn’t you like to get back 40 percent of your productive time? That’s 16 hours every week that we might be able to recover by eliminating multitasking. That kind of valuable time is surely worth muting your phone for!

The 4 Most Common Multitasking Personalities

To be fair, some of us have a harder time avoiding the multitasking menace than others. The University of Utah study referenced earlier identifies four types of people with a greater tendency to multitask:

  1. You’re approach-oriented or reward-focused.You consider the possible benefits to multitasking and are attracted to the higher potential rewards it represents.
  2. You’re a high-sensation seeker.You need constant stimulation, and enjoy the novelty of switching to new tasks.
  3. You’re convinced you’re part of the 2%.Those who think they’re good at multitasking are more likely to engage in the behavior more often than those who think they’re just average at it. But, as we saw, our perceptions of our own abilities are usually inaccurate.
  4. You have trouble focusing.If you’re prone to distraction or have trouble blocking out external stimuli, multitasking may be harder for you to shake.

If you fall into one of these categories, don’t despair. You can always improve your multitasking behavior — and even getting back 20% of the time you’re currently losing is a pretty big win.

Getting Started With Multitasking Management

The first thing to remember is that you won’t be able to eradicate multitasking completely — at least not right away. Your best bet is to try to confine it to certain parts of your day.

To start, create a space where multitasking is very difficult. These two strategies work in tandem to help you recover more productive hours from your day:

  1. Identify and Segment Complex Tasks

Figure out which of your regular tasks are most complicated, and create a distraction-free time and space for them. This goes for working on new things too.

According to the APA, the more complex or unfamiliar the tasks, the more time you’ll lose switching between them. Save yourself a whole lot of time (and brainpower) by getting into a laser-like mindset during your most complicated tasks and tackling one at a time.

  1. Manage Multitasking With Familiar Tasks

Which times and places does multitasking rears its ugly head for you most often? When you’re in those situations, focus on repetitive or familiar tasks. This helps minimize switching costs, while also letting you indulge a little in your natural multitasking tendencies.

Creating a space where multitasking is allowed is particularly important if you fall into one of the four personality types above. You’ll have the hardest time weeding out multitasking during times of focused effort, so allowing it at other times can help make that process easier.

How Much Time Will You Recover?

Identify the situations where multitasking costs you the most:

  • Are you focused on the potential accolades for “getting so much done”?
  • Does every ding from your computer draw your instant attention?
  • Are you worried about missing a breaking story on Twitter?

Whatever your trigger, identifying it will help you shut it down during your most complex tasks, so you can focus and get more done. Understanding the multitasking monster more fully means you can take steps to minimize its negative impact on your productivity.

How much time could you get back?

1. American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask.aspx Sanbonmatsu DM, Strayer DL, Medeiros-Ward N, Watson JM (2013) Who Multi-Tasks and Why? Multi-Tasking Ability, Perceived Multi-Tasking Ability, Impulsivity, and Sensation Seeking. PLoS ONE 8(1): e54402
2. Rubinstein, Joshua; Meyer, David, E.; and Evans, Jeffrey E. Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 2001, Vol. 27, No. 4, 763-797.

About the author:
Andrea Fryrear is a content marketer for MarketerGizmo, where she dissects marketing buzzwords and fads, hoping to find the pearls of wisdom at their core. Her pet topic is agile marketing, which she believes holds the key to a more fulfilling marketing career for individuals and a more powerful marketing department for businesses. She’s happy to connect on