In the popular press, there is sometime argument about which gender is or is not able to multitask. But there is not so much discussion about whether multitasking is a good thing in the first place.
WHAT IS MULTITASKING?
Multitasking is doing more than one thing at once. For instance, a parent might be looking after their child, while simultaneously handling a work phone call.
Some popular discussion has it that women are better multitaskers than men. More recent studies have suggested that men and women might actually have very similar multitasking capabilities, but use them differently.
THE BENEFITS OF MULTITASKING
Multitasking is popularly considered a key skill. In the modern world, the story goes, we need to be able to handle several threads of activity at once. Home life and work life often converge, and it is thought helpful to be able to combine the two in the same moment. At home, household chores, organisational chores, and childcare often converge, and it is similarly thought good (or necessary) to be able to handle that convergence.
In general, multitasking skills can be helpful in that they:
help people to survive imposed multitasking environments
are evidence of enhanced specialised cognitive ability
may indicate greater creativity, as creativity sometimes involves handling multiple streams of thinking at once
However, compulsive multitasking has drawbacks. Even if the modern world imposes multitasking responsibilities, this does not mean they are good for you. Having a skill is not the same thing as that skill being a good one to use. There may be other ways of doing things, without having to multitask.
Multitasking can cause problems for us, in that it:
forces us to use our very short term working memory for more than one thing, which we are not naturally built for
causes us significant irritation and anxiety by requiring us to handle dissonant signals simultaneously
breaks our focus
If you want to make someone anxious, then give them lots of different, conflicting things to do at once. Their working memory will rapidly become overloaded, their irritation levels will rise, and they will find it extremely hard to focus. These are all signs of mental illness.
Next time you find yourself multitasking, see if you can find a way of translating your job list into a series of manageable tasks, instead of a pile of simultaneous, unmanageable tasks.
Consider how you can construct your working practices to make sure that you are not required to do several overlapping things at once.
Pay attention to your body and mind. Are you requiring them to double up on tasks? Try doing one thing at a time. Do you find it more peaceful?
There is discussion in the popular press about whether men or women are the better multitaskers.
This can mask the benefits of ‘single-tasking’.
Perhaps, next time you are overwhelmed, try to convert the mass of jobs to do into one thing at a time. It may help you to become more focused and peaceful.