In a world driven by the quest for efficiency and cutting costs, multitasking is often hailed as the great timesaver. The image of the successful businessperson sitting on a train while typing on a laptop, talking on a mobile phone, and drinking coffee is burned into our brain. To become successful in any business, you must be able to multitask and maximize your time.

In reality, studies have shown that multitasking is not the key to success and, may actually be detrimental to productivity and quality.

What is Multitasking?
Multitasking is a very broad term, based around the idea of performing more than one task at a time. As Dave Crenshaw, author of The Myth of Multitasking eloquently puts it, multitasking can be divided into two types: Background tasking, such as talking while walking, are not multitasking because walking requires little thought.

True multitasking is the process of trying to perform two or more complicated tasks, such as talking on the phone while filling in a spreadsheet. The curse of modern technology means that many professions require a modicum of multitasking, but it can go too far.

The Opposite of Multitasking
There are some people who genuinely can multitask and good luck to them. For the rest of us mortals, focus is the key, the ability to concentrate fully upon one job and at a time. Despite the protests of old-fashioned time and motion consultants, the brain is far better at working sequentially. We are hardwired to focus upon one task at a time and do it well. Learning to work smartly and efficiently is a case of organizing tasks, rather than trying to do them all at once.

The Costs of Multitasking
For many years, ‘multitasking’ was a buzzword and any self-respecting job applicant would enter this ability on their resume. However, it is now falling out of favor as research shows that multitasking is counterproductive. Multitasking means that the brain has to constantly shift focus and concentrate upon another task. This takes time and increases the chances of making mistakes. How many of you have been distracted, when using the computer, and accidentally closed the wrong window or sent an email to the wrong person?

This loss of concentration is why it is insane to answer a cell phone whilst driving, and even a hands free kit can distract the driver. The Harvard Center for Risk estimated that 330 000 accidents and 2600 deaths occur, every year, from drivers using cell phones. Multitasking does not work.

How to Be Successful in a Multitasking World
In a high tech environment, where everybody seems to have more tasks than they can handle, it is impossible to avoid becoming overwhelmed by a heavy workload. One way of minimizing the need to multitask is by prioritizing tasks, and doggedly sticking to the list. For example, if you are checking your emails, concentrate on that task. If the phone rings, answer it and, once you are finished, go back to checking your emails. You will get finish the task far more quickly and make far fewer mistakes.

Working Smart is the Key to Multitasking
In fact, many of the people that we regard as great multitaskers are actually great organizers and prioritize tasks almost instinctively. A successful businessperson, who seems to juggle many tasks, is not multitasking but using supreme focus and prioritizing. They know how to work smart.

THAT is the key to multitasking!


Multitasking is the Enemy of Efficiency
A study of Microsoft employees found that it took the average worker 15 minutes to refocus on a complex task after being interrupted by the phone or a colleague. Assuming an eight-hour day, that is a lot of time wasted trying to get back into the right frame of mind. Johnathan B. Spira, chief analyst for the business research firm, Basex, estimates that American businesses lose $650 billion every year. So much for the increased efficiency of multitasking!

Focus and Imbalance: Serenity and Stress
The human brain likes focus, reveling in the serenity and high performance state that comes with concentrating fully upon a task. This process, called ‘creative flow,’ is when the human brain is at maximum efficiency. Multitasking is so unnatural that it actually stresses the brain and produces stress hormones as a response to any disturbance in creative flow.

More ominously, multitasking adversely affects memory and habitual multitaskers often have trouble remembering what they just did. A study by Anthony Wagner and Eyal Ophir showed that the electronic age of iPods, videogames and information overload is creating a generation of kids with the inability to focus.

Citation: “Cognitive control in media multitaskers.” By Eyal Ophira, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 106 No. 33, August 25, 2009.

Zen and the Art of Focus

Humanity has known about focus for many years, and the idea of entering a sense of serenity through complete and total concentration on a task is nothing new. Zen Buddhists and Yogic practitioners have known about the power of focus for many years. The top performing sportsmen and women know how to clear the mind and focus on a single task. Think Tiger Woods, Usain Bolt and Serena Williams – they know how to mentally filter out distractions! To use psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s creative flow concept, high performance is about becoming “completely involved in what we are doing – focused, concentrated”.