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Why you need to break the bad habit of multitasking to be productive

Posted by Deepshikha Shukla

February 25, 2022    |     4-minute read (612 words)

Most of us rely on our laptops, desktops and even mobile phones for work, sometimes all at once. Multitasking seduces us into believing we are accomplishing more than one task at the same time, but in reality, what we are doing is rapidly shifting attention and focus from one thing to the next.

When multitasking backfires

Our devices offer us ample opportunity to multitask, allowing us to connect with others and do our work at the same time. But our brains can really only focus on one task at a time. 

“When we think we’re multitasking, most often we aren’t really doing two things at once, but instead, we’re doing individual actions in rapid succession or task-switching,” neuropsychologist Cynthia Kubu says. “The more we multitask, the less we accomplish because we slowly lose our ability to focus enough to learn,” she adds.

A study conducted by Stanford University researchers shows that media multitasking, such as listening to music while checking email or scrolling through social media while watching a movie, increases distraction and that multitaskers may have trouble focusing their attention even when performing only a single task. 

Separately, a field test using multiple screens or multiple forms of media simultaneously was found to impair attention and memory, even when working on a single task. 

Meanwhile, the pandemic’s demand for increased multitasking has left people cognitively and emotionally fatigued. Many men and women have reported the need to constantly switch attention among tasks while working from home — be it attending to phone calls, doorbells, work meetings, children’s needs, preparing meals and a plethora of other demands. 

Research also suggests that women are more likely to be interrupted than men when working at home, with the expectation that they switch their attention among household chores, caregiving needs and office work.

Why you should try monotasking

Monotasking, also called single tasking, entails working on a single idea, task or project without distraction. Focusing on a single task “really can save you time, so it pays to get into the habit of focusing on one thing at a time as much as possible,” writes health educator Elizabeth Scott, PhD.

Keep in mind that in a study titled Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability, just 2.5% of people were found to be able to multitask effectively. Researchers have also found that college students who tried to multitask took longer to do their homework and had lower average grades. 

A few ways to practice monotasking

A digital detox from the devices that encourage multitasking can help restore your efficiency and ability to focus. The benefits will be enhanced depending on what you opt to do instead. 

“Reducing smartphone use to meditate or read books can potentially improve memory and attention or prevent cognitive decline, but doing another mindless activity might not be as beneficial,” says David Copeland, director of the Reasoning and Memory Lab at the University of Nevada.

Meditating for 10 minutes a day can help you find the centers of emotional regulation and a greater feeling of personal agency.

You can also consider using a virtual coworking space, where participants close themselves off from everything except for the task they want to accomplish and their monotasking partners.

In his new book, “The Twelve Monotasks: Do One Thing at a Time to Do Everything Better,” author Thatcher Wine advises training our monotasking muscles by doing something every day to build focus and reclaim attention. Doing so helps us be present, pay attention and feel more connected to people, he writes. 

The 12 monotasks Thatcher writes about are: walking; listening; eating; sleeping; reading; thinking; creating; seeing; playing; learning; teaching; getting there.

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