With today’s hectic pace, multitasking is a major work habit for many of us. Although it may seem logical to assume that taking care of several tasks at once will make us more productive, researchers are discovering that there can be some significant downsides to working this way.
Some thrive—most don’t
For some people, alternating between tasks can be an effective way to stay fresh and keep the mind active. However, we’re not all wired to work that way.
“Some people thrive on multitasking, but most people I’ve spoken with feel overwhelmed,” says Oren Amitay, a registered psychologist and university lecturer.
Multitasking can create stress and sap our productivity, finds a Stanford University study. Multitasking may even be associated with lower grey matter density in a part of the brain that is linked to emotional control and decision-making.
Some multitasking may be unavoidable—after all, countless job descriptions cite it as an important skill—but there are ways to multitask while minimizing the unhealthy consequences. Read on for expert tips on how to detox your multitasking.
Set realistic expectations
“Multitasking can be done effectively, but you have to make sure you’re allowing yourself enough time to complete a task instead of just jumping all over the place,” says Tamara Lechner, a happiness expert and meditation instructor.
While different personalities process stress and manage multitasking differently, Lechner says, “you have to decide if it’s a useful habit or if it’s preventing you from living your life.”
Stop glorifying busyness
Some of the pressure to multitask comes from outside forces and some of it is self-inflicted, but it’s important to distinguish between productive busyness and busyness for its own sake. “It can be easy to adopt a mentality of just being busy, where it doesn’t matter what you’re doing as long as you’re busy,” says clinical counselor Jessie Langlois.
Workplace busyness can often be dialed down to a more manageable, sustainable level. “You always have resources to set limits,” Langlois says. “Whether it’s co-workers or managers in a job situation or friends or family at home, people are willing to help.”
Find other sources of satisfaction
Why does technology seem so addictive? “[When] checking emails or news updates, there’s a dopamine surge,” Amitay says. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that communicates pleasure to the brain, so when we get a Facebook “like” or an email, it actually does bring us a small dose of happiness.
This can be a good thing: positive reinforcement via social media can help us stick to our fitness goals, for example (see “Want to Lower Your Blood Pressure?” in this issue of alive@work to learn more). But if you’re constantly checking in online and finding it hard to concentrate on other things, Lechner says you can gradually retrain your brain to get satisfaction in ways other than through emails or “likes.” “Smiling at people creates the same chemical release,” she says.