Multitasking – Why You Shouldn’t!

According to Wikipedia, the term “multitasking” was originated in the computer engineering industry. It was used to refer the ability of a microprocessor to apparently process several tasks simultaneously.i There’s a socially endorsed, but erroneous meme (unit of cultural transmission, analogous to a geneii) that people who can multitask are more productive than those who focus solely on one task at a time.

Psychiatrist Richard Hallowell has gone so far as to describe multitasking as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously.iii”  Research now suggests that multitasking results in a bottleneck in the brain’s cognitive functioning and processing.  Studies also show that students who multitask while studying reported more academic challenges.  When the brain isn’t focused on a single activity, it takes longer to complete and there’s a greater chance of making a mistake.  One study showed that it actually takes longer to do two tasks simultaneously than it would have done to do them sequentially, and they weren’t done as well as if they were done one at a timeiv.  And the amount of information that is remembered is reduced when multitasking.

There are social consequences to multitasking.  If one party is multitasking when communicating with another, the second party tends to feel that they are being ignored, or at least, not as valued as when they have your full attention.  Examples of this include people who take cell phone calls while talking to someone else, and answering emails during a conversation.

The fact is, when we multitask, we just feel like we’re being more productive, when in fact, we may just be doing many things poorly.

Other research says that people distracted by incoming email and phone calls saw a 10-point fall in their IQs.  What’s the impact of a 10-point drop?  It’s the same as the effect of losing a night’s sleep.  And more than twice the effect of smoking marijuanav.  The thing is, we don’t actually multitask.  What our brain is doing is rapidly ‘switch tasking’.  And the more tasks you try to do at once, the worse you do at all of themvi.  And it gets worse.  The more you multitask, the less creative you are and the more stress you experience.

Advantages of not multitasking include reduced stress, completing tasks more quickly, being more creative and working more accurately.

But how do you stop multitasking?  First, choose particular times of day to respond to email and phone messages, and let people know your schedule.  Commit to being fully present with other people – be it a one-on-one conversation with a business colleague, a friend, your child or your partner – they’ll feel more valued.  And you’ll probably get more done and remember it better.  Plan your day.  Stick to each task until you’re finished with it, even if you run into roadblocks.

What does all this have to do with our core business, medical transcription?  Everything.  Our editors focus on one transcription at a time.  Start to finish.  They don’t answer phone calls while checking your documents.  They’re not holding conversations with other people while listening to your dictation.  They’re focused.  They single-task.  And they focus on just one thing – making sure the quality of work we return to you is excellent.

Think about highly successful people that you know.  Look at their work habits.  After all, Olympic athletes aren’t text messaging while waiting for the starter’s pistol to fire. The conclusion is, the benefits of multitasking are a myth.  There is no downside to focusing on single-tasking.

ii Cassels, Alan.  “A Contrarian Debunks a Myth,” The Health Professional Spring 2011.

iii Hallowell, Richard. Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life. 2007. Ballantine Books

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