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Multitasking is actually impossible

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When we talk about skills that make you a better employee, colleague or leader, one of the things that often comes up is the ability to multitask.

But did you know that multitasking – be it sitting in front of the TV while eating and doing work on a laptop, or doing other work on your iPad while listening to your boss in a meeting – is not only impossible, it’s actually highly detrimental to your productivity and brain power?

According to numerous experts, what we’re doing when we think we’re multitasking isn’t multiple things at the same time, it’s context-switching.

This means our brains are constantly swapping back and forth between various things, meaning we actually spend less time on each task as our brain tries to do two things at once.

So why is multitasking so popular?

Well, a study from Ohio State University found while multitasking might hurt cognitive functions, it makes people feel good.

“There’s this myth among some people that multitasking makes them more productive,” said Zheng Wang, lead author of the study and assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University.

“But they seem to be misperceiving the positive feelings they get from multitasking. They are not being more productive – they just feel more emotionally satisfied from their work.”

Similarly, neuroscientist Earl Miller told NPR that people who tell themselves they are excellent at multitasking are actually deluding themselves. We can’t focus on more than one thing at one time – but we can shift from one thing to another at an astonishing speed.

“Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not,” Miller said.

“You’re not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly.”

Perhaps instead of focusing on the ability to multitask, we should be encouraging our staff to work smarter and become more efficient at switching between task?

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Rebecca Lewis
Human Resources Magazine Singapore

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