Get off the Multitasking Rollercoaster

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By Sara Harrup

A friend of mine is a very busy professional. She works in health care, spending part of her week across three clinical practices, teaches one day per week, sits on many boards and professional committees, does ad hoc work for a national health care body, attends professional development activities and has a large network. She is charismatic and driven, funny and generous. Over the years there have been many occasions where we have talked on the phone whilst simultaneously cooking dinner, setting up our laptops for an evening web conference, answering questions fired at us by our family, and then one of us makes a comment about our fantastic multitasking ability. Cue raucous laughter! How clever we both are! Or are we?

About twelve months ago I started to think and read about it more deeply. I began to see myself at work and at home. I realised that multitasking has a downside. In fact I realised that multitasking can make you pretty unhappy and unfulfilled.

The first thing I learned about multitasking is that there isn’t really any such thing, except for some very automatic activities where we can, for example, drive a car and talk at the same time. What we usually refer to as multitasking is really task switching. For highly energetic types like my dear friend and I, there is rapid task switching.

I have a creative mind and I hate to miss an opportunity or neglect to do a task that I know needs doing. Before I got off the task switching rollercoaster I would be in the middle of one task, and some sort of inspiration or mental note about another popped into my head. I would break from the task at hand and make a note about it, or worse, have a quick scoot around exploring the idea. Sometimes I would reprioritise, deciding that the new task was actually more important and needed to be done straight away. Then I had to refocus my attention on the task I started but didn’t finish which took effort and a little time. I would do this multiple times a day. My ability to capture all the details was a great strength. It meant that I was painstakingly thorough, rarely missed anything and always did what I said I would do. I worked quickly with high output but my rapid task switching was killing me. I found that this trait combined with the usual distractions of the working day had me in a state which was hypervigilent, overstimulated and dissatisfied. The more things I ended up with on my to do list the harder I had to work to get them all done and the worse I felt for not achieving them all.

I am not the only one who suffers from task switching. There are many like me. Think about your average work day. Most people work in environments where 100 emails a day (and more) is quite normal. The phone rings regularly. People stop by your workstation or office to ask questions or say hello. You might need to use the internet, check databases, extract information from other systems, write reports, attend meetings, review financial information, manage a crisis or grab a drink. How many times have you left work at the end of a really busy day and said to someone “ I achieved nothing today, and yet I was run off my feet”?

Isn’t it the case that when a deadline on a piece of work or report is looming and your stress levels are rising you shut yourself away, turn off your email, divert your phone calls and head into a place of focus and clear intent. Isn’t it true that after finishing that report or body of work you feel satisfied, fulfilled, relieved and tired but invigorated? This, in my view is our brain’s natural way of turning off the task switching to relieve the body and mind of its ill effects and get us to complete what we need to complete. And it works!

The research on multitasking or task switching isn’t new. A few themes seem to run across it. Some of the downsides of task switching seem to include:

  1. Lost productivity due to the time it takes to refocus back on the original task.
  2. Decreased cognitive functioning and ability to learn.
  3. Overstimulation.
  4. Poor relationships – let’s face it can you really listen and type on your computer at the same time.
  5. Increased stress levels.
  6. Increased errors.

So how do you stop?

The Yogis and the Buddhists have been on the right path all along. Do one thing at a time and do it mindfully. Do it from start to finish and give it your full attention. When was the last time that over the course of a day in each meeting and each interaction with a work colleague you gave your full attention to that meeting or person and only that? Allow yourself to create the mental space needed to attend to each piece of work.

Handle each piece of work only once. Sort your work into batches because the brain seems to work well this way. Check your emails at set points during the day. Return your phone calls in a batch. Have your meetings across the morning or the afternoon or a single day and then allow clear spaces where your calendar is blocked out. Batching also seems to give you clarity on what tasks and work areas you could delegate or get help with. In my experience my task switching can peak whilst trying to undertake work that is on the edge of my professional skills set. It’s almost like an avoidance tactic. Batching the work can make me realise I need extra help because I don’t have the time or ability to complete the work on my own.

If, like me, you get sudden inspirational thoughts, keep a notepad handy and keeping your main attention on your present task, scribble a single word that will cue you to be able to make a more thorough note later. I know someone who manages sudden intrusive ideas by picking up the nearest thing and tossing it onto the floor or putting it in an unusual but noticeable spot. Without fail when he finishes his current task and sees the item he knows exactly what it was put there to remind him of. I’ve tried it and unbelievably it works for me too.

As human beings we are highly patterned in our behaviour. By this I mean we have routines and patterns to almost everything we do. Think about your morning routine. You can probably describe it in great detail from when you have your cuppa to how you get into the car and shut the garage. Getting off the task switching rollercoaster is hard and requires you to forge new patterns of behaviour. At first it will take a lot of discipline but after a month or so you will find it easier and reap the benefits.

I can report that moving away from task switching has improved my sense of wellbeing enormously. I’m still delightfully imperfect and at times catch myself in a sudden task switching spin. At those times I remember to stop, take a breath and ask myself the question “ What is the next right thing to do?”  It’s a simple question but it’s the key for me to get back into a mindful state. Try getting off the task switching rollercoaster. Try it for a day, a week, a month and see what difference it makes for you.

Image credit: 123RF

About Sara – Sara Harrup is a Cause and Effective Associate and Director of Focus and Flourish. She is a former not for profit CEO who now focuses on organisational performance and executive health and wellbeing. You can contact Sara here

About B-Cause

B-Cause is published by Cause and Effective. Our goal is to inspire, inform and encourage people doing good to do even better.

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