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Is it better to multi-task or single-task?

In our fast-paced, technology driven world we often feel the pressure to ‘do more with less time’. Busy is often lauded as a badge of honour and the ability to multi-task has found its way onto many job descriptions and CVs.

I’m sure we can all relate to sitting in a meeting where you are expected to contribute whilst checking emails, notifications, scan-reading reports and directing our calls to answerphone. Multi-tasking can extend to the home too: cooking dinner whilst talking on the phone, clearing up, and supervising the children.

Does this frenetic way of living and working bring out our best, or can it be doing us more harm than good as we try to keep up with our own expectations? Let’s take a look at the arguments for and against multi-tasking, the rise of single-tasking and the effects these working styles can have on us.

What is multi-tasking?

Multi-tasking can take three different forms:

  • Trying to perform two tasks simultaneously
  • Rapid switching from one task to another
  • Performing two or more tasks in rapid succession.

The allure of multi-tasking can be undeniable; it creates the feeling of being productive and colleagues envy your apparent plate-spinning capabilities.

Whilst it may be relatively easy to talk on the phone and declutter your inbox at the same time, what is the cost of juggling multiple cognitive tasks? The American Psychological Association found that when people try to perform more than one ‘thinking’ task at a time, they do worse at both tasks, because the human brain was not designed for multi-tasking.

Not only does the quality of the work suffer, but as the person takes longer to switch back and forth from each activity, the work also takes longer to complete. Statistics show that it takes an average of 25 minutes to resume a task after being interrupted.

When should you use multi-tasking?

Multi-tasking often works at its best when you can combine a cognitive task – such as reading and writing – with a non-cognitive task. Try scheduling in a walking meeting next time you need to tick off a lot of key decisions and you will benefit from getting some exercise at the same time.

What about single-tasking?

The opposite of multi-tasking is, unsurprisingly, single-tasking. Single-tasking uses our brains the way they were created – to focus on one thing at a time. Instead of splitting up your mental resources, you concentrate on one cognitive task at a time and devote 100% of your energy to it from start to finish.

However, in a society that places an incredible amount of emphasis on multi-tasking, it can be difficult to justify to ourselves the benefit of doing one thing at a time. Unfortunately, our working environments often don’t do much to minimise distractions and our list of to-dos remains long.

However, if you can commit to one piece of work at a time, you may experience various benefits such as: conserving energy, improving concentration, enhancing communication and boosting productivity.

 

Which method is best for raising productivity at work?

The important thing is to choose a method that works for you. Keep your working style as flexible as you can to make the best out of every day.

When juggling more than one cognitive task, single-tasking is by far the better approach, but be sure to schedule in regular breaks to remain fresh and maintain the quality of your work.

Whichever style you choose, ensure that distractions are minimised as much as possible by blocking out devoted times in your diary to check emails, turning off notifications whilst you work or arranging cover with your colleagues whilst you concentrate.

There does seem to be a shift towards encouraging a more mindful approach to the way we work instead of encouraging the constant juggle. As the links between multitasking and reduced productivity become clearer, employers are placing more value on attention to detail, focus and value for the benefit of employees and the business.

 

Which method works best for you? Are you a seasoned multi-tasker or would you rather focus on one thing at a time? I’d love to hear your experience, so please share it in the comments below.

 

To explore how I can support you to create the environment and practices in which your teams can thrive, contact me to book a discovery call.

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