Does multitasking have a negative effect on our wellbeing?

Is it healthier to take on single tasks instead? We find out if that well-known feminine trait – multitasking – is doing us more harm than good.

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Juggling parenthood, work and your personal life is the most difficult of all circus acts, yet probably the least impressive to the crowd. Surely the lion tamer who is holding the whip and focused on one single task is the one who gets the loudest cheer?

Are women really better at multitasking?

According to a study in the BMC Psychology journal, multitasking is difficult for both sexes, but women still came out as better at it. Simply put, men are slower, but does slow and steady win the race when it comes to mental health and happiness?

Often blamed for their ‘one-track mind’, this ability to maintain a singular focus could actually be more beneficial, and healthier, when it comes to the accomplishment of daily tasks. Historically, men are more attuned to these linear tasks and have proved that eliminating, or at least filtering, distractions is the key to a productive day.

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But what about those times when multitasking is not a choice, but a necessity? When distractions are inevitable, in an open office environment or working from home with small children? Tackling a mountain of tasks forces you to prioritise your duties and organise your time, but this is something not everyone is good at. Does it all come down to who is better under pressure?

According to Professor Keith Laws of University of Hertfordshire, it is. After conducting an experiment with both sexes, he found that women were more organised under pressure, because “they spent more time thinking at the beginning, whereas men had a slight impulsiveness, they jumped in too quickly”.

How can staying organised help?

Organisation of time seems to be a determinant factor to successful task completion, or perhaps it is just practice. But when someone as demanding as a toddler needs your attention, it overtakes any organisational structure you may have tried to put into place.

Dr Rangan Chatterjee (photo by Susan Bell)

At work, there is another tsunami of duties to navigate; between phone calls, incoming emails, meetings, project work and assignments, some days can feel like a storm with waves coming at you from every angle. Multitasking at home and at work are two different animals born from the same creature – pressure.

To combine working from home is a new species altogether, one that requires much more patience and flexibility, without any rigid schedules.

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This is the current domain for many women of today who are ‘fortunate’ enough to work from home, yet are drowning in duties that are never completed, or completed well.

And with our ever-increasing digitally distractive world, multitasking is being taken to new heights. But is all this device-buzzing, phone-ringing, posting and pinging – this endless juggling of tasks – detrimental to our health?

How does multitasking affect our health?

Probably one of the most damaging effects of multitasking is that you’re missing out on the ‘moment’. Whether it is of satisfied completion, emotional connection or pure enjoyment, you are losing the full impact of that moment because you’re distracted. Inner peace is never reached and we are in a constant state of pressurised flux.

But what about those people with short attention spans who prefer to flit like a butterfly between tasks? Getting bored of one task and moving on to another seems like a haphazard way of doing things, yet many people prefer this approach. It can make us sharper, push our limits or even spur creativity.

And in this fast-paced world of ours, we may not have the luxury of devoting a lot of time to each task.

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Take Kate, a writer who works from home on various projects and is also an English tutor, as well as mother of two, a volunteer, and homemaker: “I like the fact that I’m not chained to a desk and my life and work has variety. I loosely plan my day with chunks of time given to each task before I change to another one, whether I’m finished with that task or not.

“This way I don’t get bored and can go back to my original task with fresh eyes. I also break it up with some exercise, to get rid of that buzz in my brain for a bit and physically rejuvenate.”

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Whether you’re a juggler or a lion tamer, a butterfly or a tortoise, incorporate some quiet focus in your day. Next time you’re walking, in a car, or on a train and you think, ‘here’s a chance to catch up on emails, make phone calls, etc,’ put away your phone and try taking in the moment. Your mind and body will thank you for it.

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Find the best system for you

1

Start small and simple

Some people thrive on the ability to handle many things at once and tick all those boxes. With some mundane tasks, this is possible. Talking on the phone while cooking dinner and emptying the dishwasher – all these can be done successfully at the same time or in succession, and rarely does anything suffer (apart from the odd burnt pan).

But incorporate reading an important document or writing an email to your boss and you’re asking for trouble. Basically, the normal human brain can usually handle two basic tasks at once (such as talking and walking), but add a third and things get tricky. You’re inevitably going to miss important details of one or both of the tasks at hand.

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Learn to say no

Prioritise, and say no. If you have an important email to write, tell your child, colleague or partner that you need a certain amount of time to do this, uninterrupted. Likewise, if a person needs your attention, give it to them fully and put your phone/ laptop away. Saying no to other tasks or people is not a crime.

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Rewards and benefits

Forcing yourself to focus on a single task isn’t always easy, so try to engage yourself completely and find the benefit of the task while doing it, or if it’s a truly mundane task then think of how you will reward yourself when it’s finished!

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Quiet time

Create healthy habits; if you’re an energetic person who can achieve everything by multitasking without being flustered or overwhelmed, then go for it. But if trying to do too much at once stresses you out, then it’s time to take steps to reboot and unplug with some ‘quiet focus’, as suggested by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. Set aside quiet time and make a conscious effort to divert those distractions before they happen. “In addition to feeling calmer and more focused, you’ll probably be more efficient too,” she says.

This article was first published in Project Calm, issue 1. Order back issues here, or discover our latest offers.

Project Calm, issue one

Photos by Thought Catalog, Kevin Grieve, Kenny Krosky, Tom Rogerson and Kal Visuals on Unsplash.

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