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Is Multi-Tasking Productive? Is it Good for You?

separator Here's a true story about a woman named Wendy. She had recently moved, and she was setting up her computer at home. She was inserting different CDs into her machine, and she was also on the telephone with the Help Line. At the same time, Wendy thought she might try to squeeze a few more activities in, so while she was on hold and between CDs, she decided to slice an avocado she'd be eating at dinner. She had recently seen Martha Stewart demonstrate on television a nifty way to remove an avocado pit with a deft slice of the knife.

So Wendy attempted that deft slice, and blood began pouring from her ring finger. When she saw that even applying a bandage wouldn't stop the blood flow, Wendy says, "I realized I couldn't lose any more blood. So I drove myself to the emergency room and had to have five stitches in my finger."

This example may be extreme, but it does point out one thing about multi-tasking: it doesn't usually save time.

Here's another scenario: You're having a telephone discussion with your boss or a client and you hear an e-mail message come through. You can't resist the temptation to look at it. You begin to read the message, and then you suddenly realize you have no idea what your boss or client has been saying. Definitely not productive.

The main things to realize about multi-tasking

—It doesn't save time and it can actually take more time

—It doesn't always lead to increased productivity

—It can lead to increased feelings of stress

The simple truth is that when you're doing something that requires a reasonable amount of your attention, your brain is not able to focus—successfully—on another task that requires about the same level of attention. It's one thing to fold some laundry while you watch television. It's another to really put your focus on two (or more) important things at once.

It's not just trying to focus on two tasks at once that's difficult. Switching back and forth between tasks is hard for the brain as well. Research has shown that if you compare people who switch back and forth to accomplish two tasks to people who focus on each task one at a time, it's the one-at-a-time group that finishes in the least amount of time.

When you're multi-tasking and your brain is having trouble producing, it feels a sense of "overload," and this can lead to stress. It's also stressful to realize at the end of the day that you've been jumping from one thing to the next and have very little show for it.

Instead of trying to do everything at once, take a deep breath, quiet your mind, and prioritize your to-do list. Focus on one job at a time. If you're on the telephone, focus on the conversation. (Besides, your boss can probably tell if you've switched your attention to your computer. Why risk angering your boss?) Set specific times to answer e-mails, and stick with them. And by all means, when you need to remove an avocado pit, just use your hands, even if it's a little messy.

The American Psychological Association; National Mental Health Association; The Journal of Experimental Psychology
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