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The Multitasking Myth

01 May 2018 - Dr Jan Orman

I used to be a proud multitasker.

I heard somewhere, and I am sure you have heard it too, that women are better multitaskers than men. It was said with pride, and often attributed to the fact that women simply had to learn to multitask well in order to manage their diverse and competing responsibilities.

Apparently, this is a little bit true but not as much as the mythology seems to suggest. If women are better multitaskers than men it may only be because they get a lot more practice at it!

But surely multitasking is a good thing?

It seems that multitasking is not necessarily something to be proud of. There are some very big downsides to multitasking that have been confirmed in many research studies over the last decade or so.

Multitasking causes us to lose our ability to focus on one task at a time. Our concentration spans diminish and we can no longer read without interruption or perform tasks that require sustained focus. (Interestingly high levels of social media use are also associated with that phenomenon but that’s another story)

Does this describe you?

How many things did you do while you were cleaning your teeth this morning? Perhaps you planned the evening meal, reminded the kids about their homework, pencilled your eyebrows, patted the dog and packed the school lunches (but not all of these I hope).

When was the last time you sat down to read a book? Are you flicking back and forth to Facebook or your email while you are reading this post?

Why is this bad?

There is research that shows that people who try to do more than one thing at a time end up taking twice as long to complete each task than if they completed them one after another. There is also evidence that they are more likely to make mistakes.

Multitaskers are also more stressed, with higher levels of general arousal and all that goes with it.

Interestingly too, multitasking affects memory and new learning. It is associated with short term memory lapses and disorganised acquisition of new knowledge leading to an inability to apply that knowledge to new situations.

What can you do about it?

Start by putting your phone away when you are doing something else, turning off your email notifications and installing a social media blocking widget in your browser. You might find it has a very positive impact on concentration and productivity.

And if that’s all too hard you might be in trouble - already you may have a problem! You might even need some mindfulness training to help you get back that ability to concentrate on one thing at a time.

You could start with a couple of minutes of mindful teeth cleaning each time you pick up your toothbrush – you’ll be surprised how good it makes you feel.

Useful Links:

Social media blocking instructions: https://superuser.com/questions/361378/how-to-block-annoying-facebook-and-other-social-network-widgets

Mindfulness training app: www.smilingmind.org.au

Simple mindfulness activities: https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/docs/default-source/psychological-toolkit/7-mindfulnessineverydaylife-(with-gp-notes).pdf?sfvrsn=6

 

Dr Jan Orman
Dr Jan Orman

Jan is Sydney GP, private psychological medicine practitioner in Sydney’s inner west and a GP educator for Black Dog Institute.

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