The second major obstacle to productivity in Mush Monday’s list is multitasking. This one is tricky. When you think about boosting productivity, one of the first thoughts that may cross your mind is “I just have to multitask better.” Sadly, it doesn’t always work as smoothly as intended. Multitasking is a double-edged sword. Most of the time, it feels like we are getting everything done faster, but are we really? Are the results within our quality standards? Sure, you can slash through tasks, but are you performing them adequately? Probably not. Before we talk about how you can improve your multitasker skills to become a more productive individual, let’s take a look at a few studies that prove that in some cases, multitasking isn’t all that great.

WHAT IS MULTITASKING? STUDIES, OPINIONS AND DEFINITION

Many studies show that trying to take on multiple tasks at the same time isn’t as straightforward or as productive as one might believe. Psychiatrist Edward. M. Hallowell states the following about multitasking: “It is a mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one.” The key word here is mythical. Before we dive into the effectiveness of multitasking, let’s take a look at what it is exactly.

Simply put, multitasking is performing more than one activity at the same time. While it may seem like a simple thing to do, research shows that our brains can’t actually focus on more than one task at a time. So, multitasking is, in fact, changing focus from one thing to another as quickly as possible. If we asked you to think about two separate topics, could you? Probably not, unless you fall into a special category of people. What we can do is switch on and off from topic to topic, making it look like we are processing two or more thoughts at a time.

This skill can be trained, and it is particularly relevant in today’s age of technology. Still, if it is practically impossible to multitask effectively, why is it so ubiquitous in our lives? Our jobs demand it, our bosses, our family, our daily chores. It’s nearly impossible to recall a time that a person could solely focus on one – and only one – task. The important point here is if it improves your productivity or not. Skills can be trained and multitasking is a skill; therefore, multitasking can be improved through practice in order to turn you into a more productive person. But it is simply impossible for a human to do it to the level its definition suggests.

The term “multitasking” was coined around 1960 when the use of computers was newly emerging. It was a process meant for computers that could run multiple programs at the same time. It was never meant as a term to describe how people function. Now it is more commonly used for people because we are always in need of ways to improve ourselves and become more efficient in our daily lives. Time is our biggest asset and most needed resource.

Naturally, trying to do various activities at the same time was the most straightforward approach. From the time that this term started to spread in our lives and our skills (every resume or CV in the world probably says “great multitasker”), researchers decided to study if the human brain can, in fact, perform more than one activity at the same time. They approached it from many angles.

The experiment began by assigning physical activities that required focus to do two similar things. In one case, a driver was asked to negotiate an obstacle course similar to a driving exam, but with a catch. While the subject was driving, obstacles would enter the course with no warning. At the same time, the driver had to answer mathematical problems. No one could successfully pull that off. This applies also to driving and texting, driving and talking, etc. Tasks that require full focus from a person are not suitable for multitasking.

Another example is in the cognitive field. Researchers performed an experiment where students had to research a study topic while answering texts or emails, or while chatting on Facebook. The first case was a total flop. The students couldn’t focus enough to absorb any relevant knowledge. In the second experiment, however, even though they were multitasking, they were able to learn and retain some of what they were studying since the subject was the same. Now, this is where productivity comes into play. If we perform activities that are similar or within the same field, multitasking isn’t so hard to process for our brain since everything is intertwined.

The biggest problem is changing from one task or subject to another one completely different. Our brain needs to reset and refocus constantly. And every time it does reset, it gets slower and does not focus with the same intensity. In the end, the amount of energy and mistakes that pop up during the pile-up of multiple tasks results in unsatisfactory productivity.

In theory, everything says that multitasking is not ideal. If we equate the amount of energy that is spent trying to do it effectively, the theory is not only accurate, it even proves that the notion of taking on and juggling different tasks will ultimately result in a quicker burnout of a person’s fortitude. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that nowadays every employer expects that from an employee. Even in our daily home chores, we try to tackle them as efficiently as possible, which in turn makes multitasking too tempting to disregard. The point that we need to address is how to do it without burning out, or how to do it in the most productive manner.

MEN VS WOMEN

It is widely believed that women are better multitaskers than men. Many studies have tried to give a scientific basis for these claims, but to date there is no evidence of such. All of the results so far can be attributed to inherent, generally accepted social differences between the sexes, such as women work better in a group while men excel at working alone. Despite the common misconception, there are no findings able to support it. This further supports that multitasking is an individual skill that can be trained and/or improved through hard work.

SUPER MULTITASKERS

On the other hand, there are a few individuals that can actually multitask within the literal meaning of the word. They fall under the category of gifted people, and you’ve probably seen examples of them on TV or on the Internet. People that can draw with both hands, or sing and write a story. They are examples of the true nature of this term, similar to the function of computers. Their brain can recruit multiple resources and process them separately but simultaneously. The productivity that they can achieve is at a different level. Still, this isn’t an excuse to slack on improving yourself. We all need to do what we can with what we are given. In the end, if you are looking to improve yourself and your productivity, other people should only serve to inspire you.

CONTINUOUS PARTIAL ATTENTION

This is also a new term that developed after the popularity of multitasking called continuous partial attention. This is what most of us do and try to excel at. Author Steven Berlin Johnson said, “It usually involves skimming the surface of the incoming data, picking out the relevant details, and moving on to the next stream. You’re paying attention, but only partially. That lets you cast a wider net, but it also runs the risk of keeping you from really studying the fish.”
Continuous partial attention is inevitable due to the many sources of information shoved in our faces on a daily basis. Social media, news, articles, and all sorts of marketing. How many times were you looking for information on a specific topic, or a tutorial about installing computer software, or a web design trick, etc., and opened 10 different articles and skimmed through them in five minutes? However, despite speeding through the information, you were still able to accomplish a decent result?
Most of us are already proficient when it comes to searching for and applying data. We have been doing so for years, after all. Is there a spike in your short-term productivity? Obviously. You were able to finish a task quickly, one that should have taken a few hours to do, but instead took an hour or so. The problem? Most of the time you won’t be able to recreate it. You’ll have to search everything again, skim through the information and reapply it. For the long-term, it isn’t as efficient. If you studied a small amount of information thoroughly instead of skimming through many sources of it, you would learn it well and be able to apply the knowledge whenever you needed it.

Becoming well trained at selecting and scouring information is essential for a great multitasker, and in order to boost your productivity you need to know how to move yourself through the information. Nevertheless, learning and absorbing knowledge is just as important. Sometimes it is far more important to take your time and dominate a subject than to be constantly scouring the web for a solution, especially if it applies to your job.
If you truly want to increase your resources, knowledge, productivity, and personal goals, you need to juggle both spheres. If you are always looking for information and only focusing on it partially, you will never acquire the necessary background and character for long-lasting personal development. This is easier said than done, given the amount of input that our brains receive on a daily basis. However, a middle ground is an absolute must.
If possible, give yourself a bit of time, even just 30 minutes a day, to shut down multiple sources of input and focus entirely on one thing and one thing only. Give yourself the space and time to grow and learn. Multitasking becomes a lot easier if the knowledge you need for one of the given tasks is easily accessible. As mentioned above, the problem with being able to multitask efficiently is the need that the brain has to focus, restart, and focus again in multiple tasks. Taking this into account, aren’t there tasks that you are able to perform without giving them any thought? Tasks so mundane that you can do them with your eyes closed? Yes, there are. That is the trick to multitasking properly. If you master every expertise needed to excel at your job, everything becomes easy to manage.
The key is to be great and dominate your field of work. If you can do that, then your brain doesn’t need to focus. It is already ingrained in your muscle memory. If you ask a professional swimmer for tips to swim faster, he or she might try to explain it and even demonstrate. You may not understand everything the swimmer just said, and – despite your similar technique – will you swim faster overnight? No. The muscle/brain connection swimmers possess from years of training is so ingrained in their system that they don’t even think about it. Swimming to them is like breathing for us. It is natural.
The main point is that if your daily work becomes natural to you, you will be able to do it just as easily as you breathe, and then you can incorporate additional tasks to your daily workload. This is how your productivity can increase tenfold over the course of your life.

Hopefully, after reading this you will be encouraged to improve yourself and you will stop multitasking for the sake of it. Everyone needs a game plan. If you want to become more productive, then your game plan must start with eliminating obstacles that stop you in your tracks. And this obstacle is one of the most deceiving. This isn’t a race. Self-improvement is a marathon. Read on for more obstacles that might be harming your productivity.