The term “multitasking” is believed to have originated somewhere in the 1960s. It was used to describe computer systems that processed multiple tasks simultaneously. It ultimately gained real traction in the 90s when personal computing took off and, “The ability to multitask on several projects simultaneously,” became a bullet point on virtually every job description.
Flash forward. We’ve become a society of people who regularly attempt to negotiate 10 lbs. of activity through the proverbial 5 lb. pipeline. In the name of productivity, aided by smart phones and personal digital devices meant to keep us plugged in 24/7, we’re on call at all hours of the day and night. And we respond from the dinner table, our vacation in the desert, the soccer field, or, it must be said, the bathroom. We can be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Wherever it is, though, chances are we're multitasking.
But sending our efforts in too many directions at once has a real downside: Juggling multiple projects doesn’t necessarily translate into increased productivity, smooth flow, or efficient operations. In fact, would it surprise you to hear that multitasking can actually make you–er–dumber?
A study conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London found that sending emails while talking on the phone can decrease one’s IQ by as many as ten points. And the cognitive impairment isn’t necessarily temporary. A 2014 study from the University of Sussex noted that subjects who frequently multitasked had less brain density in the anterior cingulated cortex, a region of the brain responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control. Contrary to increasing productivity, researchers found that switching between tasks–even ones that complement each other–actually increases the time to complete each one.
In the face of this mounting evidence, the prudent course would be to revert back to those pre-technology days when we could only “be” in one place at a time. Becoming more connected to each moment, including less redundant effort, increased mental clarity available for each task, and more time for activities outside of working has a big upside, but breaking the multitasking habit is not easy.
On the practical front, here are a couple of small steps to get you started:
· Make meaningful eye contact at meals. Leave your phone at the coat check and enjoy dinner out with friends without simultaneously texting to others about unrelated matters. Or sending snaps of your food to Instagram.
· In preparation for going on vacation, let your colleagues know that the only figures you’ll be reviewing while in Paris are the ones in the sculpture court of the Louvre.
· Close your email window and hang a “do not disturb” sign on your cubicle the next time you write a report. Or invest in some of the productivity software that shuts down social media while you are working so you won't be tempted.