Why single-tasking is more productive than multi-tasking

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Emptying your e-mail inbox while answering that urgent business call, or preparing a presentation while sipping on a cup of coffee and watching funny videos — all at the same time — might make you feel on top of the world. However, doing multiple things at one time makes you less productive, and successful, say productivity gurus.

American researcher Clifford Nass found that people who multi-task don’t really develop a high working memory, nor do they get better at filtering information. “It turns out multi-taskers are terrible at every aspect of multi-tasking,” he states. People who multi-task a lot are in fact a lot worse at filtering irrelevant information and also perform significantly worse at switching between tasks, compared to single-taskers.

Multi-tasking compromises memory

People show poorer performance on a variety of tasks when they try to juggle multiple media sources at the same time: for example, going from texting a friend, to reading a book, to watching an online video. It also hampers memory as the simultaneous processing of tasks is so tough on the brain.

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Often, when we multi-task, the brain switches attention back and forth between activities. Such task-switching comes at a cost in performance, according to San Francisco-based neurologist Adam Gazzaley, who studies how attention and memory change as people age. While studies show multi-tasking compromises your ability to store information over short periods of time, it is worse for older adults.

Single-tasking is the solution

As the name suggests, single-tasking means doing one activity at a time with as few distractions as possible. As long as you keep focus front-and-center and do your best to minimise distractions, you’ll be getting at the heart of single-tasking. It also means that you celebrate having less, because you recognise that what you do have is what’s most important so you can find happiness, fulfillment and freedom.

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Why we multi-task

  1. It gives an emotional boost and a positive feeling. You feel more emotionally satisfied from their work when you multi-task.
  2. It makes you more satisfied because of a combination of activities. For instance, watching television, while studying makes studies more entertaining and gratifying.multitasking-meme3
  3. Habits play an important role in the use of media multi-tasking. Once you get used to multi-tasking, it makes you more likely to continue. It’s what experts call a dynamical feedback loop. If you multi-task today, you’re likely to do so again tomorrow, further strengthening the behaviour over time.

Brain is not meant to multi-task

Researchers say that our brain is not meant for multi-tasking. It actually splits the brain, creating something called ‘spotlights’. So if you are having lunch while watching the news and trying to send an e-mail at the same time, your brain trying to frantically switch between eating, writing e-mails and answering chats. It jumps back and forth as you focus on each task for a few seconds at a time.

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When you need to pay attention, an area at the front of the brain called the prefrontal cortex springs to action. It’s the brain’s motivational system which helps to focus your attention on a goal. While the right and left sides of the prefrontal cortex work together when focused on a single task, the sides work independently when people attempt to perform two tasks at once. Try to do more than two things, and your mind is split into chaos.

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Did you know?

The word multi-tasking originated from computer multi-tasking.
Giving credence to the finding that a human brain is not engineered for multi-tasking is the fact that word itself did not originate because of human behaviour. It is a term coined in 1965 to describe a computer’s ability to process several tasks at one time. But ever since it came to be used to describe people who undertake several activities simultaneously, it has given rise to some myths as well. One of them being that women were better at multi-tasking, although research proves that there’s not much difference between the sexes. It is also said that the Gen Y were better at multi-tasking, while experts specify that they’re good at only ‘media multi-tasking’.

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Tips to ace single-tasking

Single-tab browsing

Limit yourself to only keeping one internet browser tab open while working. That way, you have to really prioritise the most important task. This habit lets you work through your online tasks one by one. If you are writing something on a document, close all the tabs and focus only on writing.

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Plan in the evening

Every evening, sit down in a quiet place and write down what you want to complete the next day. Make a simple to-do list for the next day. Don’t leave this till the morning. If you can’t manage to-do lists, enlist a friend to brainstorm for 10 minutes to walk you through the tasks of the next day. Instead of just writing tasks down, you will be forced to think through them and explain them to someone else. You’ll feel like you have done half the work in your head already. The next day, all you will have to do is look at the task and get it done. Return the favour by brainstorming for your friend, and you can turn work into fun.

Listen to music

One major myth is that music is multi-tasking. The fact is that a special part of our brain is chalked out for music, so we can listen to music while we do other things. It’s how many successful authors get into a focussed state.

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(A version of this piece was first published in Bombay Times)

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