Multitasking Makes More Stress Not Less

Take things one a time for more peace, less stress.

We all love the story of the tortoise and the hare because it’s so unbelievable to think that the slow, steady plodding of the tortoise wins in the end. But the tortoise does win because he remains committed to the task at hand—a lesson we could all stand to learn, especially in the face of stress.

We live in a world of acquisitions, mergers, understaffing, two-income families, and endless media. We have carpools, meetings, soccer practice, and laundry. We have “so much to do in so little time.” We’re stressed, and the only solution seems to be to multitask, which means to attempt to perform more than one task at the same time.

On the surface, multitasking makes sense. We have more work and less time, so we must perform more than one task at any given time in order to complete everything. But is this approach working for us? Scientists say no.

The Multitasking Myth

Multitasking may seem like a smart way to achieve more in a shorter period of time, but the truth is that multitaskers may actually be less efficient. Researchers from the University of Michigan found that people took longer when they tried to perform tasks simultaneously and switch back and forth between tasks rather than completing the tasks one at a time. In some cases, they were 50 percent less efficient and accurate.1

Another study showed that multitaskers have a difficult time focusing on relevant information and blocking out irrelevant information.2

The worst news of all? Scientists have found that multitaskers actually experience more stress and that the effects of multitasking linger once the tasks are complete, resulting in persistent fractured thinking and lack of focus. In other words, multitasking is affecting our brain and stress levels even when we’re not doing it.

Time Management Trumps Multitasking

If you want to reduce stress, time management is a more valuable tool than multitasking. We all have too much to do at one time or another. The best way to tackle that mountain of tasks is to do one thing at a time and do it well. These tips will help you just say no to multitasking:

  • Assess: For one week, keep a written log of everything you do and how long each task takes. This will help you assess how you are spending your time and where you may be wasting precious time and energy.
  • Prioritize: Create a list of tasks you need to accomplish and then prioritize that list, tackling the most important tasks first.
  • Schedule: Create designated task times. Set aside a specific time period for phone calls, emails, and errands in order to reduce the amount of time you spend going back and forth between tasks.
  • Create Systems: Establish systems and an in-box to capture incoming tasks so that you can rest assured that nothing will be overlooked. That way you won’t have to tackle a task immediately, but you can trust that it is sorted properly and on your list of upcoming tasks.
  • Delegate: Are you guilty of thinking that you have to do everything yourself? Find a way to delegate tasks in order to lighten your load and empower others.
  • Banish Interruptions: Some interruptions are unavoidable, but more often than not we allow unnecessary interruptions disrupt our workflow. Establish interruption-free periods of the day and adhere to them. Email and voicemail can wait.
  • Turn off Technology: This is an addendum to banishing interruptions. The incessant ding of incoming email and text messages are often too tempting to resist. If you really want to get some work done, turn it off. Your messages will be waiting for you when you’re finished.

Embrace your inner tortoise. Focus on one task at a time. You’ll be more productive, less stressed, and you may even find that you reach the finish line first.

References:


1 Rubinstein JS, Meyer DE, Evans JE. Executive control of cognitive processes in task switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. 2001; 27(4): 763-797.

 

2 Ophir E, Nass C, Wagner AD. Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Published online before print August 24, 2009, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0903620106.