Efficient Multi-tasking — Is it an oxymoron?

You’d think we can do it all, don’t ya??


In the fast-paced sensory-overloaded technological world, working on multiple things simultaneously, aka Multi-tasking is very common and somewhat inevitable. Be it a regular employee or the CEO of a multi-national corporation, no one’s aloof to this concept.
For the former, replying to emails and chats on the messaging system as well as doing the required task at hand accounts for the multi-tasking. The issue is more grievous in the case of the CEOs. Back-to-back meetings, strategy and planning, market update, etc. are some of the things that make them obligated to multi-tasking.

You might be thinking why should we be concerned about this. It's the need of the hour and hence we ought to do it, no matter what. Well, if you put it like that, I won’t reject your premise but I’d like to throw some light on how concerning the situation is. You may feel like a productive ninja juggling multiple things. But in reality, you are damaging your brain in the long run.

What do researchers have to say about this?

The costly loop!

Research in the field of psychology, across the globe, has definitively proven that human beings are not designed to do multiple things at the same time. You may not feel the difference every time when you shift to reply to an email, and then get back to the initial task, but your brain offers latency in shifting the focus from one task to another. It's a fact that we cannot do different things at the same time with equal focus and attention.

  1. Decrease in speed: A study based on drivers, conducted by the Univerity of Utah, conclusively proved that working on multiple things effectively slows you down. The drivers who were using cell phones while driving took more time to reach their destination than the ones who didn’t use cell phones.
  2. Increase in stress: Researchers from the University of California Irvine identified that the employees who were subjected to constant texting and emailing for work, experienced higher heart rates because of higher attention. This ultimately led to an increase in mental stress.
  3. Decrease in creativity: Creativity is a function of time you invest in pondering on the subject. Multi-tasking doesn’t allow you to do so, thus affecting your effective output.

There are many downsides to multi-tasking than the ones I have mentioned. If you are interested, refer to this link.

If you have reached this point, then I presume you seem interested in the underlying facts and the remedies to deal with situations where you have no choice but to go with multi-tasking.

Essentially, in the name of multitasking, you are doing nothing but task-switching. So come to think of it, you are only working on 1 task at a time. By estimates, it has been deduced that it takes 40% more time to do the job than if you wouldn’t multitask. If you think rationally, which do you believe is better — working on 2 tasks (by task-switching) OR working on both tasks one after the another, eventually taking longer time?

Why can’t we multitask??

Well, you simply cannot!

Your brain subconsciously chooses which task to focus on, when you attempt to work on multiple things. Now, when it switches from one task to another, it takes some time to adjust to the demands of the latter task.
Think of this as a computer trying to clear its RAM, and load the files relevant to the latter task. It’s going to take some finite time, however, we may not be able to “feel” the delay, in the case of computers.
Contrary to the computer, our brain actually takes a significant time to do so(from a few tenths of a second to a couple of minutes), depending on age, gender, etc.

Let’s get some facts on the table to see why can’t we multitask:-

  1. In order to be good at multi-tasking, you need an incredibly good memory, more specifically, short-term memory or what scientists call, the “working memory”. Furthermore, your brain needs some “down-time” to create long-term memory impressions from these short-term interactions.
    By bombarding it with multiple inputs, within a short span of time, you are essentially robbing your brain of this vital activity.
  2. When the brain tries to do two things at once, it divides and conquers, dedicating one-half of our gray matter to each task. Neuroscientist Etienne Koechlin, from the French biomedical research agency INSERM in Paris, deduced that the brain can’t efficiently juggle more than two tasks because it has only two hemispheres available for task management.
  3. There are actually two stages to the act of focusing, both controlled by the cortex: goal-shifting and rule activation. The former happens almost very quickly. The latter is where things get difficult. You can relate this to the computer’s file loading analogy, I shared earlier. In a nutshell, it takes a significant time for the brain to “refresh”, unlike a Windows PC with F5!

What can you do??


The simple solution to this problem is — don’t do it! This may sound naive but it is effectively one of the best solutions.

  1. If you are reading this blog on a mobile phone, throw it away (for your work hours)! That’s the monster in your attempt to avoid multitasking. The constant notifications, instant messaging, etc. may be fruitful to the brands, but as an individual, oh no!
  2. Use a priority list and make it dynamic. Start with this list in the morning or the night before. List down all the major tasks and assign the relative priority to each of them. If something new comes up, insert it into this list at a suitable position.
  3. Here’s an interesting method, which I have been using for the past 5 weeks, and it's proven effective as hell — instead of randomly diving into the internet or social media perhaps, allocate chunks of time in your daily schedule and rest of the time, don’t turn on the internet, at all! As time progresses, minimize the duration and quantity of chunks per day.
    You’ll realize that you don’t really have the need to go online, instead, it's the imaginary untamed monkey, also known as the Mind, that compels you to do it.
  4. I know that it's not always possible to complete a task before moving to another. Create milestones for a given task and decide which milestone is the exit from this highway. In this way, you don’t have to multitask and you can easily get all the tasks done.
  5. Lastly, don’t forget to pause for a while. It may sound philosophical but the truth is what it is and it won’t change no matter what we think.
    In between 2 tasks, take a 5–10 minutes break, go for a walk, drink water, and come back.
    These activities don’t require your pre-frontal cortex to be active and hence it can “refresh” its memory buffer, in the meantime.

Lastly, some people say that a smile goes a long way! Well, on Medium, we say “claps” go a long way in keeping the author motivated! I think you get it ;)

Thanks for reading! Hope this helps!
If you identify a mistake, please highlight the same.

My website — Keshav Bagri.




IIT Kharagpur’22 | Mechanical Engineering | Hungry and foolish soul | Website: keshavbagri.live

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Keshav Bagri

Keshav Bagri

IIT Kharagpur’22 | Mechanical Engineering | Hungry and foolish soul | Website: keshavbagri.live

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