Women are famously feted for being able to multi-task in a way that men can’t. It’s a point regularly made among female circles that men could never do the things that women do because men can’t multi-task in the way that women do.
Whether it’s chatting with a friend on the phone while cooking dinner, helping the kids with homework while catching up on our emails, checking our phone messages while paying for the groceries, writing an email while watching TV or working on three different tasks at work at once, when your to-do list is longer than the River Trent, multi-tasking is the way forward if you want to steal half an hour later to catch up on the latest episode of your favourite TV programme, right?
Well, actually, no.
OK, I said this series of blogs on how to develop a happier work-life balance wasn’t going to be about better time management. This one comes close to that, but it’s a no-brainer. Fact is, multitasking makes you LESS efficient. Period. Sure, it gives you a buzz to be managing two or three things at a time and at the end of the morning when you’ve ticked several things off that ever-growing to-do list it seems like you’ve been really productive.
But the science says otherwise.
And not only is it less efficient, it’s likely to be more stressful and less enjoyable. And, as we’ve explored before, if we want our work-life balance to feel happier, we have to enjoy what we do more.
OK, before trying to convince you further that taking things one at a time is the way to go if you want to improve your work-life balance, I have to put my hands up, be honest and let you know that there are some things that you can successfully do simultaneously.
Multitasking works if:
you can do at least one of the things you’re doing automatically, because you’ve learned how to do it so thoroughly that it takes no attention to do whatsoever,
the things you’re doing involve different types of brain processing
Examples? Well, making a phone call while cooking the dinner is a great way to get more done (as long as you’ve got enough hands to hold the phone and prepare the veg safely!), as is listening to a podcast while you’re at the gym. Reading a book while listening to music also works, although if you’re listening to a song you’re going to have to choose whether to listen to the lyrics or understand the words you’re reading, because your brain will only process one of those language-based things at once.
Most of the time, when we think we’re multi-tasking, what we’re really doing is flitting quickly between the different activities we’re doing. And each time we switch from one task to another, our brain has to re-focus, which takes effort and energy. When you switch tasks, your brain wants you to be able to remember what you were doing with the first task ready for when you go back to it, and memory capacity is actually pretty limited in our brains.
In other words, every time you take your head out of that spreadsheet, presentation or document you’re writing, or look up from the form you’re filling in or the book you’re reading, to reply to an email or text message, you’re adding to the overall time it is going to take to complete the main task.
In fact, overall it’s estimated that it takes 40% more effort/time to complete a series of tasks when we juggle between them in this way than it does if we take them one by one.
Why such a big difference?
Well, as well as your brain taking time to remember where you were at and what you were thinking about before making the task-switch, you’re also likely to make more mistakes when you’re in that less focused state of constantly switching … leading you to go back and do things again to eliminate the error.
And just to compound the issue, even though you’re able to finish the various tasks on your plate working this way, the bad news is that your brain works at a more superficial level while doing them when it’s juggling between more than one thing at once. So while you can perform the tasks, you’re unable to learn much from what you’ve been doing. Which means if there’s a better, more efficient or appropriate way of doing something, you’ll miss it and rather than benefitting from having learned how to do it more quickly in future, it will take you just as long next time .
Once we’ve accepted that doing one thing at once is more productive than juggling several things at the same time, the real trick is to learn to focus our thoughts on the task or activity in hand rather than allowing them to wander, because it’s only then that we’re truly doing one thing at once and are able to get really optimum benefits.
When we’re working in that way, with total focus, we’re able to notice and appreciate the detail of what we’re doing in a way that we simply can’t if we are thinking about something else. As well as being more accurate , that means we’re more likely to get enjoyment from what we’re doing….even if it’s just because we actually notice when we’ve done a really good job, giving us reason for a mini-self-congratulatory moment as we go about our day.
And it’s not just a benefit we feel when we’re working or doing boring household chores. Taking the same focused, mindful approach to the things we do for fun and to relax means we get more out of those things too…and who’s not for more effective relaxation?!
So next time you find yourself tempted to sneak a peek at Facebook or Twitter in the middle of filling in your tax return, or you dive straight for your pocket to answer the trill of your mobile telling you you’ve got a message when you’re replying to an email from your boss….you know what to do.
If you’re struggling with your work-life balance, work-life balance coaching with me can help get you on the path to a happier life, with more time for yourself. Please get in touch for a chat if you’d like to know more!