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Person using a phone, laptop and notebook multitasking

Stop Multitasking! Try Single-Tasking Instead.

Picture this: you’re in a Zoom meeting, and as the speaker drones on in the background, you’re checking your emails, listening to music and occasionally, scrolling through social media. 

Person using a phone, laptop and notebook multitasking

Multitasking. Sounds familiar, right? We do it all the time. In fact, at this point, it’s pretty much an essential skill for most of us. Well… I hate to tell you this, but what you’re doing isn’t actually multitasking.

 

There’s no such thing as “multitasking”.

Yes, I know that sounds shocking, but hear me out. According to Dr Jim Taylor’s article in Psychology Today, humans are physically incapable of multitasking. Instead, we’re actually just serial-tasking: shifting our focus between several tasks in rapid succession. 

 

This means that one moment we’re doing Task A, then we pause and shift to Task B, and back to A again. It’s impossible for us to handle these two tasks simultaneously—at least not if they use the same part of the brain. For example, you can listen to instrumental music while doing work, because both activities engage different types of brain processing. It’s also possible to text while walking because the latter is so well-learned for all of us, it requires only very little brain processing.

 

The cost of multitasking.

Woman using her phone and laptop on the couch

Now that we know multitasking is actually serial-tasking, we need to talk about why it’s bad for you. Yep, you heard me right—multitasking is bad for you. We live in a society where we praise the ability to juggle multiple tasks at the same time, but truthfully, there are so many downsides to multitasking, including:

  1. Decreased productivity,
  2. Increased stress, and
  3. Weakened memory

 

1. Decreased productivity

When we keep switching between tasks, our brain actually requires more time to disconnect from the previous task and adjust to the new one. This focus-shifting can take up to 40 per cent more time than if we were to concentrate on completing a single task only.

 

Besides, the quality of our work decreases when we multitask. This is because when we move from one activity to another, we’re breaking our concentration and momentum, which will take quite some time to build up. Naturally, when we can’t fully concentrate on our work, we don’t do a great job at it.

 

2. Increased stress

Because you’re constantly breaking and rebuilding your focus, you’re straining your body and brain even more. The human brain was not designed to handle multiple tasks at the same time. So when you force your body to work outside of its element, it will eventually get overworked.

Stressed woman speaking on the phone

But here’s the worst part: the more you multitask, the more your brain gets used to the idea that you should be doing several things at the same time. This means thinking about something else when you’re trying to write a paper, crack a complex question, or go to sleep. Your brain activity might get so heightened that it’s become difficult to relax.

 

3. Weakened memory

No matter how hard we try, it’s impossible to fully concentrate on more than one thing at a time. That means whatever we’re watching or working on, we can’t register the information properly, thus it will be harder to recall what we’ve done or learned. Multitasking can also result in absent-mindedness and memory loss. This is because more energy is put into switching between tasks instead of remembering things and crystallizing thoughts into long-term memory.

 

 

So, how do I start single-tasking?

If you’re a frequent multitasker, it may feel uneasy or unnatural to do just one thing at a time. But don’t worry, because as with everything else, practice makes perfect. So here are some simple things you can do to start ditching the multitasking habit.

 

1. Make a to-do list and follow its sequence.

To-do lists are great for organizing your work and sorting out your priorities. When you create a physical list, you don’t have to keep one in your mind, so there’s more room in your brain for concentration. Having a list is also a good reminder for you to channel your focus into one task only until you complete it. Make sure you’re not doing Item 2 until Item 1 is done.

 

2. Remove other distractions while focusing on a task.

Clean workspace for single-tasking

Keep your phone out of sight. Turn off notifications. Don’t have your email or messenger open in another tab. When you’re doing a task, try your best to keep only the items relevant to that task on your desktop and remove the rest. This can help you experience fewer interruptions and avoid the temptation to work on something else.

 

3. Interruptions are unavoidable, so address them sparingly.

Sometimes, we just have to attend to an urgent matter and put our current task on hold. That’s perfectly normal, but try to only address interruptions that are absolutely necessary. And when you do, take a moment to reset your mind. This can mean getting up for a walk or a few minutes of deep breathing. Simple activities like these can help reduce the stress levels in your brain as you’re giving it more time to recover from an interruption.

 

 

In a world where we’re always being bombarded with tasks, it’s vital that we deal with them one at a time. Trust that you will be able to finish them all. Your work is important, but so is your health, and multitasking is good for neither. Instead of being proud multitaskers, let’s be proud single-taskers!

Hailing from Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Tiffany is a Mass Communication student who likes to write, read and edit videos. Also, she’ll never say ‘no’ to a good movie!

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